Watch, Read, and Listen Again / Aaron Colton

Children read comics while others frolic on beach. Miami Beach, Florida, 1942. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

If it was true in 2019, as Richard Godwin wrote in The Guardian, that in “the so-called golden age of prestige television, most of us still want to watch half-hour shows about vaguely likable people in which everything turns out OK,” then what was once a “want” may now be more like a “need.”1 Nearly three years and over a million dead in the US since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “comfort watch” has become a definitive concept for media consumption in excruciating time.2 On finishing the tenth and final season of Friends (1994–2004), we loop back immediately to season one, replaying, in our constant exhaustion, a series requiring minimal energy and attention.3 We re-watch The Office (2005–2013) as a “pandemic time capsule”: a reminder, however embellished, of a work culture now unrecoverable. We re-watch because we are despondent, drained, and defeated. We re-watch to keep alive the fantasy of anything turning out OK. Where else but in shows like Friends or The Office is OK to be found?

In this context, the re-watch has become an industry unto itself. From our return to The Sopranos (1999–2007), for instance, came Talking Sopranos (2020–2021), a podcast in which Sopranos actors Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Bacchalieri) re-watch the series themselves. For streaming platforms, the rights to oft-re-watched series are a bulwark in the battle for subscriptions, as evidenced by NBC paying approximately $500 million to pry The Office, no doubt the crown jewel of rewatchable content, from Netflix in 2021.4

Part and parcel with such a valuation is the content-recommendation algorithms meant to ensure that services’ subscribers remain subscribers (a task that has proved increasingly daunting in recent months).5 On the Netflix menu page, the “Watch It Again” category reminds users of the value of their monthly fees by way of the company’s claims to users’ most frequented shows and movies. And perhaps the most ingenious of any streaming platform’s incursion into social media is Spotify’s “Year Wrapped,” an animation that celebrates users’ yearly listening habits by revealing the percentile that users rank among in relation to their most played artists. It has become an annual ceremony on Instagram, Twitter, and the like for users flaunt that their status in, say, the “top 2% of Bon Iver listeners.”

In this sense, to re-watch or re-listen online—whether out of nostalgia for the pre-pandemic, to escape from reality, or to fit content to one’s wearied state—is also to accept the capitalist logic of the streaming era. The media consumer most intently targeted is not the audience eager for the newest release, but instead the comfort-seeker whose consumption habits tend toward the facile and depressive.

And while all of this is true—as true now as it was in 2020—from a certain angle, the pop-sociology of the “comfort watch” resembles just another iteration of a decades-old media doomsaying. Re-watching The Office, in this sense, is a specially engineered form of immobilization, a toxicity meant to affix weary eyes to dumb screens in perpetuity.

Yet, exhausted as we are, comfort does not always mean passivity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us in “Experience” (1844), “[i]n times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.”6 If we take this adage seriously, the idea of re-experiencing media—whether digital or physical; print, audio, or visual—goes well beyond consumer zombification, even in its pandemic context. As those who consciously re-watch, re-read, or re-listen know, when we re-experience media, there are times when we can’t help but notice what else we now notice: how a work of art we had thought emptied continues to unfold before us, and how our own capacities for engaging with media also expand.

As the discourse of the comfort watch has repeated itself ad infinitum throughout the pandemic, authors like Emily Nussbaum, Vivian Gornick, and Margo Jefferson have described in detail how acts of re-experience may serve self-critical, reflective, and self-constructive functions. In their accounts of re-watching, re-reading, or re-listening, these authors provide lessons that cut across artistic mediums and culminate in complex but indispensable methods of self-fashioning, opening up the generative possibilities laden in a pandemic we may as well measure by the cycles of our media consumption. There is undeniable comfort in returning to the familiar, but, as we learn from Nussbaum, Gornick, and Jefferson, in re-experience there are also opportunities to reconstitute the ways that we engage with our most deeply held sources and, in doing so, how we compose our very selves.

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In I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (2019), a compilation of her decades of TV criticism, Emily Nussbaum establishes a paragon example of how re-watching might serve as an instrument for assessing, and ultimately amending, the ways that we consume and critique visual media. Perhaps the heart of the collection, and one of the essays to address rewatching most directly, is “Confessions of the Human Shield,” which Nussbaum explains in a prefatory note replaces three other essays she had planned for the book prior to the 2017 reporting on Harvey Weinstein and the advent of the #MeToo movement. The question that grounds Nussbaum’s essay, “What should we do with the art of terrible men?,” is not unique to #MeToo but has been made all the more urgent by the movement’s collective and individual reckonings with the art of men who have ranged from relative assholes to utter monsters. One can be almost certain of the influence of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967) on Nussbaum, who writes that her critical sensibility was shaped at Oberlin College in the 1980s amid debates about the coherence of pornography with feminist movements. “If artists could separate themselves [from their art and its implications], well then, so could I,” Nussbaum summarizes of her stance as a young critic.7

But for many like Nussbaum, #MeToo has pushed such a sensibility to a breaking point. As Nussbaum reflects, the ongoing revelations of #MeToo have made it doubly imperative that she re-examine her taste and practice given that both were shaped by the likes of Woody Allen and Louis C.K., the latter of whom, Nussbaum acknowledges, holds responsibility for both irreparable harms and works that have inspired “a wave of autobiographical comedies, many by women creators.”8 “I didn’t want to erase the art made by these men,” Nussbaum writes, “I wanted to scribble all over it… to make it mine instead of theirs.”9 But at what point, she asks herself, does granting a film like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) the title of “feminist masterpiece,” even while acknowledging that it was “created by a sex criminal,” require her to become “perpetually forgetful… to detach [her]self in a way that fe[els] strangely unhealthy”?10

These are questions Nussbaum finds more easily answered in theory than in the messiness of re-watching concrete examples. Considering Allen’s oeuvre, Nussbaum writes:

Without watching these movies, it is easier to dismiss them simply as propaganda for Allen’s sexual predilections. But watching them, it gets more complicated: Among other things, these are, in fact, movies about men who fall madly in love with middle-aged women—their peers—but get rejected by them. Those women… are prickly, funny, demanding, messy, controlling, complicated, and intellectually accomplished figures. They’re generally portrayed as preferable to younger women, but harder to hold on to.11

But in taking on the difficult work of re-watching such films, Nussbaum also glimpses how the complications of art and an artist’s biography can point in opposite directions: toward increasing complexity and plainer reflection. Where rewatching Allen’s films reveals a depiction of gender more complex than a mere echo of Allen’s predatory history, a rewatch of Louie (2010-2015) reveals previously unseen biographical reflections:

On the show that Louis C.K. created, wrote, and starred in, he was a Charlie Brown, surrounded by kinky, scathing, boundary-violating Lucys…

Then, in those final two seasons (which were filmed as the tides of rumor began to rise), Louis did something strange but interesting: He made the Louie character less of a victim, more a man with power—and, often, a creep… These were the episodes that many viewers, including me, found so alienating, in part because they were also frequently more pretentious, stagier, more didactic. But there was something real buried in the wreckage.12

The “real” Nussbaum invokes extends as much to herself as it does to C.K.’s biography. Re-watching Louie returns Nussbaum to the stakes of her own tolerance for ambiguity in the distinction between art and artist. From the vantage of the re-watch, Nussbaum brings herself to ask whether the biographical emergences in Louie—both C.K.’s self-pity and his unsettling fantasies—were in fact “catnip for a critic who was eager to see ambiguity everywhere.”13

What comes into focus for Nussbaum, then, is not just the moral insufficiency of blanketly separating art from artist, but also a vision of how artists may themselves exploit such a practice. The consequence of re-watching is a view on critical complicity (which Nussbaum pairs with a sincere analysis of her own participation in staged interview of C.K. amid the same “tides of rumor”) that brings to light how Nussbaum herself might evolve as an interpreter and evaluator of television. In re-watching, Nussbaum glimpses, even if she cannot yet define, her own need for a means of “see[ing] more deeply without having to ignore what was in front of your eyes.”14 To re-watch, for Nussbaum, is to gain a vantage on how one has seen, what one has omitted, and what it might take to see more clearly, comprehensively, and judiciously.

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If, for Nussbaum, re-watching brings a critic to scrutinize her own practice, for Vivian Gornick, re-reading brings a critic to scrutinize the many versions of herself. In Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader (2020), Gornick composes a series of self-portraits by way of the returns to fiction which punctuate the timeline of her life. In each reading of novels by D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Natalia Ginzburg, Marguerite Duras, and Elizabeth Bowen (to name only a few), Gornick peels off an autobiographical sample, presses it between the glass of a microscope slide, and files it in her collection for later comparison. Specifically, it is in recognizing each book’s changing resonances—how Gornick comes to identify with characters she had previously discounted or is struck by themes she had earlier been unprepared to detect—that Gornick gains a perspective on how art may speak differently to who she was or is across moments in time, especially on matters of love and sex, identity and liberation, and their many entanglements.

In the opening page, Gornick lays out the memoir’s structural gambit:

It has often been my experience that re-reading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question… If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grips?”15

No doubt, the analyst’s couch is an apt simile for a “chronic re-reader”; Freud had much to say about the relationship between repetition, trauma, loss, and repression. But where Freud thinks of repetition as beyond the pleasure principle (as in the title of his famous study), for Gornick there is a distinct pleasure in the realizations that come with re-reading fiction and thus glimpsing the development of her own perspective. Where Gornick had previously read Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) as a novel framing “sexual passion as the central experience of a life”—a reflection of a younger Gornick’s understanding of sexual passion as the pinnacle of self-development—in a decades later reading, Gornick finds, exhilaratingly, that the “struggle at the heart of the novel is [… in fact] the illusion of sexual love as liberation.”16 Sensing that the novel asserts the opposite of what she had first gleaned, Gornick writes, “I found it all the greater and the more moving that I had held it close to my heart all these years for a set of not misinformed but insufficiently informed reasons. It was also one of the first times that that I saw clearly that it was I, as a reader, who had had a journey toward the richest meaning of the book.”17

As she traces her developing interpretation of Lawrence, Gornick also discovers, reflected in her re-reading, the evolution of her own view on passionate love. Pointedly, Gornick’s re-readings of Sons and Lovers coincide with moments of romantic magnitude throughout her own life: indecision on the day of her first wedding and her divorce from her second husband. “I didn’t want to be married,” Gornick realizes in a crucial anecdote, and so she returns yet again to Lawrence, “hoping to gain for myself the freedom from emotional blindness the book was urging on its readers.”18

Instances like these of literature shedding light on life populate the collection, making all the more viable Gornick’s association of re-reading with psychoanalysis. And yet, the dynamic of literature allowing for new perspectives on lived experience sells short the many functions of re-reading that Gornick’s essays illuminate. For as often literature brings Gornick to new vantages on her own experience, Gornick’s experience also brings new vantages on literature. On Colette’s The Vagabond (1910), for example, Gornick writes:

I have from you the incomparable feel of an intelligent woman in the grip of romantic obsession, and that is strong stuff. But today sexual passion alone is only a situation, not a metaphor; as a story that begins and ends with itself, it no longer signifies. Let me put it this way: What young woman today could read Colette as I read her when I was young?19

Not much later, Gornick compares the central figures in Colette’s fiction to those of Duras:

The narrator in Duras’s novel The Lover could easily have encountered Chéri in the Paris flat where he regularly took opium and at last committed suicide: they are two of a kind. I, however, could never have understood this before I myself became old enough to re-read first Colette and then, in turn, Duras, in the light of insight only years of living could have supplied.20

In these instances, it is literature that finds itself on the analyst’s couch, not Gornick, who makes an analytical instrument from the past versions of herself that re-reading has made legible.

In Gornick’s construction, then, no one reading of a text is ever easily discounted or taken as one’s final thoughts. The re-reader knows that a text’s resonances are all but certain to change over time in frequency and intensity, shaping and being shaped in return by the re-reader’s also changing self. Because what is meaningful in on one reading may diminish in another, and because new meanings may emerge without warning, the re-reader knows never to foreclose a text entirely. For the re-reader, each literary text re-read, each experience of re-reading, and each of our past and present selves becomes a mirror within a closed chamber, each panel reflecting light off one another endlessly. To re-read is to constitute a self that is perpetually in flux but whose manifestations—inflected by the influence of identity upon text and text upon identity—a re-reader can nonetheless pin down, describe, interpret, and amend.

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Perhaps a better description of Gornick’s theory of self is “assemblage,” a concept devised by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to describe structures made from networked, fluctuating, reproductible, displaceable, and replaceable parts. The term provides an equally compelling account of essayist and critic Margo Jefferson’s experimental memoir Constructing a Nervous System (2022), a work of self-reflection also predicated on re-reading, re-watching, and, most powerfully, re-listening.

“I’ve spent my adult years working on an assemblage of black feminist anger modes,” Jefferson writes, “My sources vary. And I don’t hesitate to draw from non-black styles when they have something vibrant to offer.”21 On this point, Jefferson is anything but hyperbolic: Tina and Ike Turner, Bing Crosby, Nina Simone, W.E.B. DuBois, George Eliot, and Ella Fitzgerald (among many others) become synapses in the nervous system of Jefferson’s construction. In this way, Jefferson’s self-reflections offer object lessons in how returning to texts, and especially records, can make coherent even seemingly incongruous constellations of self—how to determine identity in the flashing, disordered signals of performer, performance, and impression.

It is less that with her many sources of self-experimentation that Jefferson interprets media as much as it is that re-listening makes possible Jefferson’s diffuse methods of self-construction. In an early iteration, re-listening allows Jefferson leap broadly through time in a manner that foregrounds later configurations of narrative perspective and identity. Early in the memoir, Jefferson turns her attention to Ella Fitzgerald, narrating her childhood obsession with the singer from the vantage of the present:

On a spinning black disc she sounds like all I could dream of: she’s a romantic comedy heroine with perfect pitch and varied pace. Mischief, longing, quicksilver charm.22

Jefferson’s idolization of Fitzgerald sustains throughout the memoir, with Fitzgerald a central node in the author’s assemblage-self. But in establishing the centrality of Fitzgerald, Jefferson is also, subtly, reworking Fitzgerald as an instrument for amalgamating unlikely sources. Moments later, the spinning disc becomes a time machine, jumping Jefferson decades forward:

In the 1980s when my best friend (white) is writing about ‘30s romantic comedies I play a game of appropriation and compensation; I match her white Hollywood Stars with MY black jazz ones; Ella is Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard.23

Then, in the subsequent paragraph, the sounds of Fitzgerald throw Jefferson simultaneously in opposite directions: back in time to narrate her pre-teen years and forward to gloss Fitzgerald’s future and the media figures Jefferson will eventually consider in the context of Fitzgerald’s career:

The black disc is spinning through the late 1950s and early ‘60s […] Like most preteen girls I long to be physically desirable; like most black preteen girls I long to be physically desirable while also being physically impeccable. Her tastefulness does not make me enjoy looking at Ella Fitzgerald’s album cover. She is portly. Forever portly. The first lady of jazz never sheds pounds dramatically, never transforms herself against all metabolic odds to sashay across the set in for-flaunting outfits. The way Judy Garland does. The way Oprah Winfrey will.24

Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Judy Garland, Oprah Winfrey: in narrating instances of re-listening across time, Jefferson wagers that to identify with a performer is not just to fashion oneself in their image, but also to make that performer a nexus for conjoining the images or aspects of others salient to one’s personal or intellectual life. In this sense, Jefferson’s depiction of Fitzgerald’s mind as a “music laboratory, stocked with elements to be broken down and recombined”25 applies not just to Fitzgerald’s own musical acumen, but also to the combinations of identities and qualities that returning to Fitzgerald makes possible. In re-listening, Jefferson finds a means for declaring “I’M BING CROSBY” while uttering inwardly “You are Sammy Davis, Jr. […] You are James Baldwin”—for evading the pressures of coherence in favor of a messy and yet systematic assemblage.26

Much like T.S. Eliot’s famous analogy of the mind of the poet to the “filament of platinum” that makes possible a reaction between the chemical gases of “emotions and feeling,” the record listened and re-listened to serves as the catalyst in Jefferson’s experimentations with personal identity.27 As with Nussbaum and Gornick, a return to familiar media is a conduit to self-analysis, in terms of both intellectual practice and the nature of the intellectual’s self. But with Jefferson’s re-listening in particular, she brings simultaneously into focus both the person she is and the person she might—and does—build and rebuild from sources internal and external, partial and complete. The record revisited, spinning through time and across personages, underlies each of these acts, whether narrated explicitly or humming in the background, the familiar music of self-construction.

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There is no TV series more familiar and comforting to me than Twin Peaks (1990–1991). I re-watch it every February28, reacquainting myself with how David Lynch and Mark Frost contorted the crime drama into an implausible hybrid of horror, romance, fantastic quest, and soap opera, and then, over two decades later, dismantled their own creation in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

On this year’s re-watch, I find myself drawn to Sarah Palmer—mother of the murdered Laura Palmer—and how her development in The Return distorts my impression of her as a character demented by anguish. There is a particular scene in the second season that brings me pause. In it, actress Grace Zabriskie foreshadows the inhuman choreography of seminal horror projects like The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004), crawling headlong down the stairs of her home, arms outstretched as if by invisible wires. The scene follows chronologically from yet another disturbing sequence in the 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, in which Sarah’s husband, Leland, forces Sarah to drinks a concoction of drugged milk. It is with Sarah thus impaired that Leland, possessed by a demonic spirit, abuses, rapes, or murders young women, as he did their daughter. Sarah’s agonizing but feeble moans as she inches down the staircase thus demonstrate her powerlessness as Leland kills yet again—this time, a double of Laura in her cousin Maddy.

But on this re-watch, I suspect that Sarah Palmer is not entirely the victim she seems. In The Return, Lynch and Frost bring viewers to 1956, well before the events of the 1990s’ seasons and film, to depict a fissure torn between realities by atomic testing in the Southwest. From this portal emerges a perplexing, froglike creature with insect wings. By the episode’s end, the creature burrows itself into the stomach of a sleeping girl, quite plausibly a young Sarah Palmer, who later in The Return will herself kill and maim.

Leland, I now suspect, is not the only Palmer in Twin Peaks to host a force from another world. And in this light, Sarah’s contorted descent in season two mirrors the contortions of her own complicity the series explores in The Return, where, for mere moments across the eighteen episodes, a tormented Sarah pierces through her bodily imprisonment with fragments of half-comprehensible speech.

In its Lynchian weirdness—foreshadows, echoes, and resemblances all made partial by an illegible cosmology—Twin Peaks rewards rewatching. As art historian T.J. Clark asserted in his own study of repeatedly viewing the same paintings:

astonishing things happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again: aspect after aspect of the picture seems to surface, what is salient and what is incidental alter bewildering from day to day, the larger order of the depiction breaks up recrystallizes, fragments again, persists like an afterimage.29

Likewise, in Twin Peaks, there are details and connections that become visible only with increasing acquaintance. And with increasing acquaintance, one becomes all the more invested in spotting those details: their particularity and how they reshape the impressions left by previous viewings.

But from Nussbaum, Gornick, and Jefferson’s accounts of re-experience, a new, important set of questions emerges about this realization and a series that has provided me with as much comfort as it has intrigue: How has my means of seeing changed such that I now notice these complicating elements? Who is this person I have become who now sees the series differently? And what other elements—media, people, or ideas—will this realization pull into its orbit as I inevitably construct and reconstruct myself?

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world,” noted Emerson, submitting that our “temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung.”30 We can consume numbly, passively—but sometimes, despite our exhaustion, a show, text, or record drags us along to new vantages regardless. Or, perhaps because of our weariness, our temperament causes us to see or hear differently, and for our temperament to change again in return. Re-experience and you might not help but rewrite yourself.

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  1. I sincerely thank Adam P. Newman for his insights on an early draft of this essay.
  2. See Danielle Turchiano, “Comfort TV in the Age of Coronavirus,” Variety, 8 April 2020, https://variety.com/2020/tv/features/comfort-tv-coronavirus-friends-office-one-day-at-a-time-psychology-1203549216/.
  3. See “Why We Can’t Stop Bingeing Old Shows During The Pandemic,” NPR, 16 August 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/08/16/902977070/why-we-cant-stop-bingeing-old-shows-during-the-pandemic.
  4. Lesley Goldberg, “‘The Office’: Why NBCUniversal Is Paying $500M to Pull the Hit from Netflix,” The Hollywood Reporter, 26 June 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/office-why-nbcuniversal-is-paying-500m-pull-hit-netflix-1221020/.
  5. See Jessica Bursztynsky and Sarah Alessandrini, “Netflix Closes Down 35% Wiping More Than $50 Billion Off Market Cap,” CNBC, 20 April 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/20/netflix-plunges-trading-subscriber-loss.html.
  6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York, 2000), 308.
  7. Emily Nussbaum, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution(New York, 2019), 113.
  8. Nussbaum, 142.
  9. Nussbaum, 112.
  10. Nussbaum, 122.
  11. Nussbaum, 130.
  12. Nussbaum, 146.
  13. Nussbaum, 147.
  14. Nussbaum, 148.
  15. Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader (New York, 2020), 3.
  16. Gornick, 18, 21.
  17. Gornick, 19.
  18. Gornick, 35.
  19. Gornick, 45.
  20. Gornick, 49-50.
  21. Margo Jefferson, Constructing a Nervous System (New York, 2022), 147.
  22. Jefferson, 35.
  23. Jefferson, 35.
  24. Jefferson, 35.
  25. Jefferson, 48.
  26. Jefferson, 62, 123-124.
  27. T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: The Perfect Critic, eds. Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard, 2014, 108, 109.
  28. My good friend Molly disapproves of my schedule and insists that Twin Peaks is exclusively a fall show, not to be watched outside of September through December.
  29. T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven, 2008), 5.
  30. Emerson, “Experience,” 309-310.