[Editor’s note: This piece was updated in September 2021.]
Aesthetic weakness of will is usually thought of as an incongruity between one’s judgment about the quality of an artwork and one’s liking for it. If I think the Twilight movies are bad but I can’t help but like them, that’s supposed to be aesthetic weakness of will. But is liking really a matter of the will? I might be able to take actions meant to diminish my liking for Twilight: carry around a picture of Bella and Edward and look at it every time I feel nauseous, tell everyone I meet that I like Twilight to give them the opportunity to shame me, or deliberately watch the movies more often than I want to so that I become sick of them. If I judge that I should take these actions but then fail to follow through because I love Twilight too much, that sounds like weakness of will. But the liking itself? I don’t think so. In any case, what if my all-things-considered judgment is that I should just go ahead and like whatever artworks I happen to like? Surely subsequent incongruity between my judgments about a work’s quality and my liking for it would not constitute weakness of the will.
I want to suggest an alternative way of thinking about aesthetic weakness of the will: it’s basically the business model of Netflix.
Around the time Netflix transitioned from a DVD rental service to a streaming service, something else was happening: TV was getting amazing. Production values improved and narratives mimicked great serial novels. Structures of mystery and revelation, suspense and climax, buildup and payoff, unanswered questions and seductive cliffhangers now propelled our interest forward, enticing us to just power down the whole damn season in two days. Streaming dovetailed beautifully with this style of television. Watching TV the old-fashioned way entailed waiting a week for each new episode. With streaming, there were no such barriers. It was truly a time to binge.
Once streaming services began to proliferate, the key to attracting and retaining subscribers became original content. The most effective original content for this purpose is the serial, where one simply must find out how a cliffhanger resolves or learn the fate of a beloved character. Netflix’s current business model appears to be a combination of deliberately addictive content, fine-grained demographic targeting, and the scattershot production of so much stuff that you couldn’t possibly keep up with all of it. There’s something for everyone, and not just something: too much. Netflix is designed to leave time for nothing but Netflix. And now we have a number of competitors imitating this business model, with the cumulative result that it’s impossible to run out of TV. There’s always more TV.
Around 2017, something hit me: Wow, I really haven’t ticked very many film titles off my bucket list lately. Part of it was availability. Most streaming services don’t prioritize movies made before 1980 or in a foreign language. But I found that I wasn’t watching even the bucket list titles that were available. The Turin Horse was sitting right there on Netflix like a ripe apple, waiting to be plucked, and I wasn’t watching it. I was watching Iron Fist. This was out of character for me. What gives?
In the days when Netflix was a DVD mail-in service, there was a 2-3 day waiting period between selecting and watching. With this waiting period in place, I found that I was more likely to choose aspirationally—to choose things that reflect my considered views about what I want my for the aesthetic dimension of my life. Once a disc arrived, the opportunity cost of hanging onto it was a strong motivator to watch it as soon as possible. In the current era of streaming, one chooses what one will watch right now. After a long day of explaining Aristotle to people, I found it pretty hard to press play on demanding films and a lot easier to binge six episodes of The Vampire Diaries. I am the last person who would deride the artistic merits of serial TV, but here’s the thing: a lot of it can effectively function as a narcotic. The narrative structures that propel the viewer’s interest forward also serve to drown out mental background noise. It’s really easy to stay focused on The Vampire Diaries. With all its twists and turns and greasy payoffs, it actively engages the viewer and washes away the worries and stresses of the day. Something like The Turin Horse, on the other hand, can require active effort on the part of the viewer to sustain focus and explores harrowing themes that are anything but narcotic. Even though I really wanted to see The Turin Horse and it was miraculously available on streaming, it just sat there unwatched for some time while I binged god knows what. If you asked me in my cool, reflective hours what I want for my life, I would say that I want to watch more bucket list titles like The Turin Horse and less narcotic serial TV. But when I actually sat down to select something to watch, I opted for narcotic serial TV more often than not. Streaming services like Netflix can promote aesthetic weakness of will; they can tempt us to consume art in ways that conflict with our considered judgments about what we want for the aesthetic dimension of our life.
So what to do about it? Maybe you don’t care. Maybe what you want for your screen time is narcotic relaxation. If this is the case, then this isn’t an issue for you. But if you do care, here are three strategies:
Netflix and its ilk are like the all-you-can-eat buffets of streaming. Sometimes, less is more. The Criterion Channel and MUBI are examples of boutique services that offer much less content, but where the content that they do offer has been curated by experts who are aiming to promote film as an art form, support restoration and preservation efforts, and highlight undervalued and marginalized works. Every month, 50-100 or so films leave Criterion Channel, and every month there is a prolonged spectacle of subscribers agonizing on social media about which titles they should prioritize before they’re gone. Last month, I watched five Carole Lombard deep cuts in two days because I hadn’t seen them and they were convenient to see—but only for three more days. If I didn’t have the three day deadline I would not have watched all five of those movies. I would have thought “yes, I would like to see these, but I’ll just watch one now and then get to the others later.” And I may never have gotten to them, especially if I went down some five season television rabbit hole in the meantime.
Limited availability creates a sense of urgency that helps to overcome the short-term inclination to go for something more narcotic. I might be tempted by the new season of Fboy Island, but I am able to overcome this temptation because I realize that if I don’t watch Godard’s First Name: Carmen on MUBI soon, I’m going to lose my chance. Curated services like MUBI or Criterion (or a local repertory theater, if you’re lucky enough to have access to one) serve to constrain the will in ways that may help align one’s viewing habits with one’s considered judgments about what one wants for the aesthetic dimension of one’s life.
Book clubs, film societies: these are familiar institutions. They function in part as will-constraining strategies. If you’ve got book club on Friday, it’s much more likely that you’ll read the book. This resembles the sort of social strategy that people often employ to remedy ordinary weakness of will. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself to exercise, you might make plans to meet a friend at the gym three times a week. That’s basically book club. In the absence of a formal club, one can still make deals with one’s friends: let’s both read the same book and then talk about it over coffee next week, or let’s get together every Wednesday for an Otto Preminger movie until we’ve watched them all. I maintain something like this sort of arrangement long distance with my brother: we try to watch a lot of the same movies and then talk about them at length over the phone. It’s awesome. The social and aesthetic benefits intertwine in satisfying ways. Cultivating friendships around our artistic interests can motivate us to sustain our engagement in ways that matter to us and help keep the tendency to backslide at bay.
One thing I’ve done to remedy my own aesthetic weakness of will is that I’ve started film blogging and using the film social media site Letterboxd to keep track of the stuff I watch. These activities have served as a framework for various projects that have functioned to constrain my will. Shortly after I had my epiphany about the way my streaming choices exhibited weakness of will, I adopted the project of writing an introductory guide to Jacques Rivette. This of course helped motivate me to watch through all the Rivette movies, but it didn’t stop there. In order to do a good job with the guide I felt like I needed to read Rivette’s film criticism and various interviews with him and essays about his work. This cued me into his many influences, which led to lots of tangential viewing projects. These tangential projects in turn led to further tangents, some of which I’m still following up on several years later. When a new Netflix show debuts, I might still check it out, but my standards for whether I’ll actually watch it past the first episode or two have gone way up. I now see the time I spend on serial TV in terms of its opportunity cost for my ongoing film-viewing projects. For the amount of time it takes to watch a 12 episode Netflix season, I can watch about 6-8 movies. Which is going to be more fulfilling, another season of Iron Fist or Erich von Stroheim’s entire extant filmography? In my cool reflective hours, there’s not even a question here. The hard part is sticking with my considered judgment at the moment of truth when I pick up the remote control. Maintaining a set of personal viewing projects helps motivate me to make day-to-day choices that I can feel good about in the long run.
TV is really good. Did you see Fboy Island? It was amazing. The problem is that TV tends to crowd other media out. I want my media consumption diet to include a decent amount of TV, mostly as something to occupy me when I’m too tired or distracted to really focus on what I’m watching, but I want it to include considerably more movies. If I leave my viewing choices up to my day-to-day inclinations, however, I’ve found that I end up watching more TV and not as many movies. This looks to me like a paradigm example of aesthetic weakness of will. Since having this realization, I’ve successfully limited my TV intake to a small fraction of what it once was while more than tripling my movie intake. It’s amazing. I’m much happier. But to get to this point I had to purposefully adopt strategies to keep my weakness of will at bay.
Thanks to Thi Nguyen for titling this piece.
Matt Strohl is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana. He is the author of Why it’s OK to Love Bad Movies. Find him at strohltopia.com and on Twitter @strohltopia.