Repetition, fandom and practices of the self

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Secular society] expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and give us weekends off for consumption and recreation. Like science, it privileges discovery. It associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.

For example, we are enticed to go to the cinema to see a newly released film, which ends up moving us to an exquisite pitch of sensitivity, sorrow and excitement. We leave the theatre vowing to reconsider our entire existence in light of the values shown on screen, and to purge ourselves of our decadence and haste. And yet by the following evening, after a day of meetings and aggravations, our cinematic experience is well on its way to oblivion, just like so much else which once impressed us but which we soon enough came to discard.

Alain de Botton, Religion for atheists. A non believer’s guide to the uses of religion, London: Hamish Hamilton p. 133

Random thoughts in response

De Botton argues that religion is aware of our propensity to forget and provides repetitive structures, activities and calendars to continually remind us of the important things. This is something that secular society does not do, except when it comes to work and economic productivity, leaving us free to source inspiration from wherever we can find it. This means we forget and don’t reinforce self transformative practices. From an entirely different angle, John Medina in a popular science discussion of how the brain and memory works posits as ‘brain rule’ number 5 ‘Repeat to remember’ and ‘brain rule’ number 6 ‘remember to repeat’. In short, repetition is essential to the process of learning. [1]

One could consider media fan practices of viewing long form serial television in the context of these two discussions. Fans will draw lasting lessons and engage in transformative practices of the self by exercising quite particular viewing practices in relation to their chosen subject matter. Although films – particularly films which have sequels – are also subject to fan activity, television series are perhaps more strongly susceptible to a certain kind of work on the self. A television series features a story, characters and a universe that can sometimes span years in real time and is delivered in weekly, sometimes daily instalments. Thus, we have a regular calendar occurrence which keeps the material present in the viewer’s mind. Further to this, a typical fan viewing practice is to view episodes multiple times, and to repetitively rewind and review select short scenes within those episodes. The fan may then go on to further reinforce this input by transforming it into creative and social practices such as discussion with other fans, fan fiction writing or other creative output.

This process allows the fan viewer to assimilate those lessons and insights that they have connected to and garnered from the source text. Thus the fragility of the secular experience of art, drawn attention to by de Botton, is counteracted by certain kinds of fan practices. This indicates, perhaps, that there exists considerable resistance to contemporary incitations to engage in a disposable consumerism that has no term. Further, if one goes down the sometimes dubious brain science route, it might indicate that people continue to be aware of the techniques that need to be practised to foster learning and self transformation. In either case, it is clear that living in an unstable void of an endless featureless stream of temporary rhizomic connections is not an attractive proposition to many people.

[1] John Medina, Brain Rules, 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school, Brunswick: Scribe Publications, 2008, pp. 119, 147

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