Home > Uncategorized > Active vs. Passive Media: The False Dichotomy

Active vs. Passive Media: The False Dichotomy

Author’s note: Published a month after Virtual Environments and Opera, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (13 March 2012), a now-defunct blog that focused on videogames and information. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save the text, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.

In the comments section of my previous posting [Virtual Environments and Opera on tl;dr, (not the one on this blog)], I went on a tirade about “active” vs. “passive” media. I won’t pontificate on media theorist Marshall McLuhan, but I will consider some possible reasons why this split remains a useful rhetorical tool for people who advocate the virtues of specific formats.

You’ve probably heard advocates of reading describe how television, videogames, and other visual media are passive because they’re “preprocessed” (like fast food and TV dinners). Books, on the other hand, force you to translate text into the five senses, and are therefore more nourishing (like organic vegetables, but only if they’re locally grown and in-season). These are the people who proudly proclaim that they haven’t watched television since 1972.

Steve Johnson’s pro-popular culture book Everything Bad Is Good for You, whose title derives from ironic observations made in the Woody Allen films Annie Hall and Sleeper, makes the opposite claim. Books are actually a passive medium, because the author generally tells you “what to do.” On the other hand, among other things, videogames enable you to create your own story and to develop such abilities as hand-eye coordination.

So, if books are a more active medium than videogames, except when videogames are a more active medium than books, where does that leave us? Definitions of “activity” and “passivity” are little more than moving targets. Nonetheless, advocates of the former can resort to tortuous arguments to “prove” a specific point, while sidestepping the differences in quality that exist within all media. Text materials may have traditionally held a venerated status, but I’m sure we can all think of television shows and videogames that are more substantive than certain books [about sparkly vampires].

[And now, for a tangentially relevant history and theatre lesson, along with bathroom humour, a most excellent clip from Wayne’s World, and musical references that tie together SWTOR (Star Wars: The Old Republic) and Blazing Saddles…]

For nearly a century, certain interests have hyped up the differences between audience activity and passivity. Some visual artists and playwrights have focused on fostering “active” audience engagement with their works, with the stated goal of bringing about political change. They set their works in opposition to those that, at least for them, aid in maintaining the status quo by ignoring harsh social realities. The latter may range from novels and films about sparkly vampires to “masterworks” of art, all of which are “passively” appreciated or (to get Marxist here) consumed as commodities.

One could trace these concerns at least as far back as World War I (1914-1918). For the first time in history, mechanized death obliterated millions of young men. After the war, economic sanctions imposed on a defeated Germany set the stage for the eventual rise of a Mephistophelian monster who promised to restore that country’s pride. With the so-called civilized world in shambles, as well as the recent victory of “the workers” in formerly Tsarist Russia, the time seemed ripe to question “bourgeois capitalist” values. One such value was the elevated status of “art for art’s sake,” which holds that great art rises above everyday concerns. To counter that ideal, the Dadaists used absurdism to confront viewers with the futility of simply appreciating art in a world gone mad. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is one of the most iconic examples.

Of more specific importance to this posting is the emergence of politically-committed theatre in the period after World War I. Although actors and spectators share the same space, they inhabit two separate realms: the auditorium and the stage. Some playwrights, including the German Marxist Bertolt Brecht, attempted to bridge that gap by taking advantage of live theatre’s relative intimacy. Brecht expressed the belief that it had the potential to dissolve the boundary between actors and spectators, and spur collective political activity. Brecht’s plays draw upon a number of techniques that fall under the broad term alienation, designed to remind spectators that they’re only watching a play [that makes an “important point”]. It’s supposed to prevent them from investing too much emotionally in the characters, usually the dregs of society in Brecht, and to pay more attention to the socio-political implications of the play. One of the best-known alienating techniques is “breaking the fourth wall,” where a character directly addresses the audience. Although they don’t possess the same readily-apparent political agenda as Brecht, the Annie Hall clip near the beginning of this posting and at least one scene from Wayne’s World are examples.

Ironically, it’s hard to escape the sense that live political theatre invests some of its potential transformative power in the notion of spectator passivity; it’s supposed to make you active… in a manner that conforms to the intentions of the author. Furthermore, like educational games whose developers forget elements like “fun” and “enjoyment,” politically-committed works can do too well with alienating their audiences through didactic heavy-handedness. Luckily for Brecht, he at least possessed a sardonic wit, and had composer Kurt Weill along to write delightfully dissolute songs for some of his plays. Similar songs include certain tunes heard in the Imperial cantinas of SWTOR, as well as Lili von Shtup’s I’m Tired in Blazing Saddles. (No stranger to Brecht himself, Mel Brooks even mentions the influence.) Weill himself shouldn’t be too obscure, though: for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, he wrote the oft-covered Mackie Messer.

With so much at stake, is it any wonder that serious advocates of active media can have an unshakeable faith in its fine distinction from passive media? More recently, however, French philosopher Jacques Rancière has questioned such received wisdom. “The Emancipated Spectator,” based on a talk given by Rancière in 2004, addresses the agenda-based usage of the terms under discussion. His questions about the distinction, which focuses specifically on actors and spectators in live theatre, are relevant to any medium. As he asks at one point, “What is more interactive, more communitarian, about [live theatre] spectators than a mass of individuals watching the same television show at the same hour?” (Rancière 2011, p. 16)

Questioning the active/passive actor/spectator dichotomy is very relevant here. In fact, what Rancière says about television shows could extend to MMO games. You participate in the action in real time, albeit from a safe distance via your avatar. On the other hand, gamers might have a soft spot for books as well, despite what Johnson says about them. (In fact, I suspect that many of you reading this probably don’t fit the old stereotype of gamer “passivity,” sitting in your parents’ basement, mollified by pressing buttons and staring at shiny, eyes glazed over as you mindlessly munch on chips.) As much as I disagree with Johnson’s assessment of books, the antiquated stereotypes about gamers probably necessitated a rhetorical pushback against book worship. At the very least, it can get people to talk more seriously about the positive aspects of videogames, and (even more broadly) to move away from the compulsion to pit one medium against another.

In addition to the elitist aspect of spectator “passivity,” which Rancière deconstructs towards the end of his 2007 paper “The Misadventures of Critical Thought” (Rancière 2011, pp. 25-49), the term remains insufficient for describing how individuals actually engage with specific media on their own terms. Why can’t we just define “activity” as the complex array of emotional, intellectual, and physiological responses we have to all media, whether political or not, and leave passivity out of the equation?

tl-dr

Notions of “active” and “passive” media are driven by individuals with specific agendas. They advocate for specific media that they perceive as active, while discounting the importance of others identified as passive. Books and videogames are two media that have been juxtaposed against each other in this manner. In reality, they provide complementary modes of cognitive, intellectual, and emotional engagement, which varies among individuals.

Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.

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