Super Bowl: Panopticon Paranoia

When scholars dig back through this digital Dark Age in which we are living, the overriding theme of our current era will be: paranoia. This pall is not unique to today, but it feels more acute, like we’re constantly moseying over clearly-delineated points-of-no-return. Maybe in time, we will look back fondly at our current state of burgeoning-to-infectious digitization and mediation with a kind of nostalgia for a simpler time, and lament the evaporating naiveté, a time when we felt we could still wriggle from the vice grip, and when we had some illusion of control. Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Mr. Robot.

It’s almost endearing how gleefully we amass our technology and willfully overlook the darker potentials inherent. And then we celebrate it all with absurdly embellished forms. Take this Sunday—a mass cultural moment always ripe for dissection for the media-curious: The Super Bowl. This fluorescent ritual, replete with cartoon animal sacrifice, ceremonial rites, homilies, songs sung in unison, and traditional banquets, is a formidable maelstrom and a striking sociological deluge. This year marks a half-century of devotion and it’s sure to be a critical mass event for the ages; indeed, it’s been groomed to be.

Don’t underestimate the expanse—this week well over 100 million people (XLIX: 114.4 million) will be watching the same thing. On this scale, this happens but once a year, so it’s always worth looking a little closer. Our desire to watch, our watching habits and rituals, and our position as currency—analyzed and squeezed into demographics to be utilized as bargaining chips for commerce—is all at play in this realm, and heightened to an amazing, seemingly untenable volume. And, these two seemingly contradictory halves of the equation are held up as complimentary—voyeurism satiated and exploited at once. The way the game is structured and depicted has changed, intensified really over time. It is a hall of mirrors that reflects at all angles and obscures the exits. The desire to see is an insatiable urge, and the causal chain of the football spectacle is a perpetual motion machine for the act of watching.

Come Sunday, revel in redundancy, bask in the myriad angles, the slow motion, freeze frames, rewinds, the abundance or information that rewrites and recasts the real-time event as it was just seen. It’s a feast for the eyes as well that is meant to be both dizzyingly kaleidoscopic and fanatically coherent in the dissection of minute detail and pockets of information strung together—the high-wire act of maintaining this balance is part of the fun for the media-minded. The Super Bowl is the time each year when we give in to our scopophilia and indeed come together to share in our obsessive and brazen desire to see and to be seen.

Just as with any ritual, there are traditions and displays, structures and phases; the ritual has its own language and internal logic apart from the everyday. Theatricality abounds, and our notions of success and failure are reduced down to their simplest forms—and man condensed to dichotomous emotional states—while also validated in ways that are absurd and arbitrary. But, more so than any of that, the game and the event and the manner in which it is presented feeds the cycle and feeds the desires inherent. The delivery device that is the football game threads together 11 minutes of gameplay into a marathon viewing experience that spans countless hours and then some. In a very real sense, this Sunday, we will all be witnessing blank space for hours on end, an ocean of distractions disguised as a cultural collage, white noise masquerading as action. And lo, are there montages. Montages galore, cobbled together in a chunky narrative stew to reprocess and invest our attention in the end game before diving headlong into the amplified carnage of the Super Bowl commercials.

And the game has running, real-time voice over narration, from a pair of chroniclers with specific duties—color and a dry running log (aka play-by-play)—a team really, that guides our investment, sometimes dictating it more forcefully when fates conspire to produce dull moments or bum momentum. All is part and parcel with the effort at narrativization, a process of building storylines within the game framework. There are the structural support beams—team affiliation, winners and losers, specifics of gameplay—and the freeform emotional arcs—underdogs and favorites, personal stories garnered from season-long, sometimes lifelong, sometimes real-time narratives, etc. Our narrators draw on this, building out possible scenarios, hyping potentials in the order of greatest satisfaction and excitement for a rapt audience, charting and monitoring the narrowing temporal paths as we zero in on a coalescing lived-reality. It’s all a gambit to stoke investment and keep viewers glued and it’s remarkably effective (and ripe for parody and self-parody).

Really, we’ll experience the game several times over on Sunday, and through many different filters and from many different perspectives, as that is the standard practice. The way the game is framed, the way each component is assembled piece-by-piece, play-to-play, is a marvel of repetition and low-simmer stimulation. Consider your average replay scenario: So often these are decided by the slimmest of margins—grazing a painted line, pigskin momentarily skinning turf, an appendage ambiguously suspended between opposing directional thrusts. The compulsive dissection of fractional moments in time throughout the game is perverse. A big moment or a crucial turning-point is not a prerequisite; deep scrutiny happens damn near every play. First, they are studied in real time, to acclimate based on naturally perception, a baseline for further analysis; then, multiple slow motion iterations are piled on top, each adding new information and new angles. This miniature narrative of physical movement in space is overlaid to craft flamboyant and violent de facto recreations of L’Uomo Vitruviano—a single figure in multiple states of being superimposed but constrained by physics.

Shards of time and the interrelation of bodies and objects are diagramed and probed in search of an irrefutable microcosmic truth. To wit, we get another angle, and another, each telling another piece of the same story of this dot in time. After all, a conclusion is reached and time moves on. The decision is accepted or continues on in question, but time no longer doubles back on itself in image, only in memory and its expression and the ramifications. The next play brings more of the same and so on until clocked time ceases. The referees are surrogates and scapegoats in this process, eyes and voice articulating and narrating the happenings and interpreting for us, but also targets of scorn and blame. They’re the superego that keeps us in check while all around is stroking the id and ego.

Interspersed are the interruptions, but really they are laced throughout the whole, and, in this context if nowhere else, they are not interruptions so much as a parallel draw—in excess of 100 commercials despite the paltry gameplay totals. Commercial breaks are an essential component of this piece as a text, and while this may be true elsewhere and throughout television, it is unassailable here. Marketers, brands, advertisers scramble and escalate for a shot at the unparalleled multitude of guaranteed eyeballs. Commercials become grotesque abstract art as new characters and schemes and styles and mini-arcs across breaks lay the template for our brand recognition for the year to come, and venerate the heavy-hitters.

Inherent in the TV contract is the certainty that it is watching you. You are tallied and included in a number to advertisers on the back end, where they buy in according to the size of the crowd. That’s the model. On this Sunday, we will be part of the biggest horde of the year, the most flavorful chum for the most ravenous lot of advertisers, maybe ever; it always vies for that title. In return, we get the show. And, the show in this case is bombastic to keep the cycle going. It’s an overbearing Panoptes monster, but also a collective moment where we can all come together and share in the Doritos-and-cheap-beer-fueled lucid-dream trance.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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