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Against Interpretation

Viewers should be able to experience entertainment without commentary

Politics aside, it is hard to deny that Obama is a captivating orator. After eight years of perplexed eyebrows and blank teleprompter gazes, Obama’s rhetorical aptitude feels as refreshing as a good night’s sleep after an all-nighter. Anyone who has seen him speak has felt the rapture of his pathos, ethos, and logos melting together in his inspiring words.

Nevertheless, time and time again Obama’s speeches are chopped to still-pulsing pieces by intermittent and blatantly partisan insertions of needless applause. Jarring ejaculations of editorializing slowly suck the lifeblood out of captivation, and the more they appear, the more I find this trend both frustrating and deeply frightening. For how can we be swept away by anything when audiences are constantly grabbing for coattails to ride on, in desperate attempts to bask in another’s glory while contributing nothing of their own but noise and disturbance?

The tendency to comment on another’s performance in medias res spans across cultures and genres of entertainment. It is as if the audience, and not the actors, are breaking the fourth wall by throwing bricks at it. What noisy senators do to the State of the Union is comparable to a diaper commercial right after a murder on your favorite TV show: a grating, sobering reminder that you are only watching a performance and not truly experiencing it. Because we only understand laissez faire as it applies to economics, viewers cannot lose themselves in the act. Never mind what the performers want to convey; nothing speaks for itself.

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But all is not lost: Consider why concerts, sports events, and shows are all more expensive to watch live than on TV. Part of the price pays for the bragging rights of having seen some hero of yours in the flesh. But there has to be more, for why is good close-up footage still less appetizing than nosebleed seats? The answer: Seeing events live brings the show alive. Good performances dissolve the space between self and other, so individuals can immerse themselves in experience rather than in deflating rejoinders and side notes.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to attend live shows. But if events must be broadcast, the experience of them should be transmitted through the media they employ, along with their simple images and sounds. High-definition screens are a wonderful step in this direction. But sports commentators, for example, can be a step in the other direction, as they often add little to no information crucial to one’s understanding of the game. Their commentary tends to pale in comparison to the sweat of athleticism they feel the need to pick apart from their leather seats in the climate-controlled press box.

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Why not, then, make commentary optional? At this point, to avoid grating commentary we flip between channels broadcasting the same event, but all this offers is our pick of interpretation, when the real interpreters should be ourselves. Why shouldn’t we be able to choose if we want to hear commentary at all? What if announcers only spoke during halftime and time-outs, as one friend would realistically turn to another only during a lull in the action? We could lose ourselves in the experience of the game much more easily without constant prattle, whether it’s that of a non-stop announcer or the guy who won’t shut up in the row behind you at the stadium.

In many ways, it is too late to turn the tide on this trend entirely. No worldwide mandate could restrain the cheers of spectators. Yet we must allow ourselves to be swept away by something, or we shackle ourselves to the degrees of separation between pure enjoyment and irony. Anyone who feels even a modicum of outrage should make a personal commitment to lengthen our cultural attention span and let powerful performances speak for themselves. For there is an important difference between choosing how you want to experience an event and preventing yourself from experiencing it at all. Every now and then, a willing suspension of disbelief is, like chicken soup, good for the soul.

Diana T. McKeage ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a literature concentrator in Winthrop House.

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