Choosing the Wasteland

The Social Construction of Self as Viewer in the U.S.

How to Cite

Peterson, M. A. (2002). Choosing the Wasteland: The Social Construction of Self as Viewer in the U.S. M/C Journal, 5(5).
Vol. 5 No. 5 (2002): Self
Published 2002-10-01

To listen to them talk, you'd think most Americans hate television. Everyday discourse about television abounds with condemnation of television content. Television is a wasteland, a stream of idiotic material insulting to the intelligence of the viewer. When people deem a particular program worth watching, they often articulate it in contradistinction to the vast majority of awful stuff out there.

This almost universal discourse of condemnation does not mean Americans do not watch television, of course. They do, and they watch a great deal of it. Thus we have a conundrum. If it is so awful, why do people watch television? When Americans construct stories about themselves, they construct themselves as choice--making individuals (Polanyi). Sane, mature Americans are expected to be able to make intelligent choices and to live with the consequences of their choices. How, then, can Americans articulate themselves as television viewers, as individuals who choose to view what is clearly awful stuff?

In this paper, I want to discuss 'veging out' as an American category of media viewing that resolves this conundrum. In framing their discourse about watching television in terms of 'veging out,' Americans are able to construct themselves as sensible, choice--making persons, and yet explain why they watch large amounts of television. I want to use this example to explore ways that media scholars might supplement explorations of the self as mediated by texts with attention to the ways the viewing self is articulated in everyday discourses about television by viewers.

An American Folk Category of Pleasure

I said I'm sorry this is late. I just couldn't work on it over the weekend. I just veged out in front of the TV the whole weekend. I realise that's not much of an excuse…but…I had my Arabic test Thursday and I was too burned out afterward to do anything. I had to let my brain recharge. [text one]
Let's just veg out tonight. We both had a big lunch, let's just make some popcorn and watch whatever stupid stuff is on TV. Unless you want to get a video. [text two]
God, we didn't do anything this weekend. We just sat in front of the TV. (laughs) It was a total veg out weekend, we ordered out every night. John was on the rig for two weeks and then he's had to work late every night since he's been back, and I've had this activity and that activity with the kids, and girl scouts and soccer... We really needed the break. [text three]

In the interest of brevity, I offer only three texts here.1 Anyone who has listened to Americans talk about television can probably multiply these examples many times; most Americans of my generation or later have almost certainly been producers of such discourse at one time or another. Each of these examples is drawn from a different context: a student's explanation for handing in a late paper [text one], a wife's suggestion for evening plans [text two], a friend sharing information about her family [text three]. And each is part of the language of experience – the language people use to describe emotions, sensations, and thoughts and, in so doing, articulate a self.

'Veging out' -- the 'veg--' prefix is borrowed from the word 'vegetable' and pronounced with a soft g -- is a nice example of a local taxonomic category of pleasure and the way it is embedded in more complex discursive formations, which it both replicates and refracts. In American society, where sitting in front of the television when there are other things to do is condemned as a waste of time that makes one a 'couch potato,' 'veging out' allows actors to reconstitute 'being a vegetable' as an empowering choice, an intentional and temporary vegetative state one escapes into as a means to relax, reduce stress and 'get away' from one's troubles. Veging out involves escape but specifies that one is escaping to nowhere, that an avoidance of critical mental activity is precisely what is sought. The claim to be veging out thus accepts the general American public discourse of television as a wasteland – the 'waste' in particular involving waste of time -- and simultaneously challenges it by claiming, in essence, that one has a right to do nothing if one has been working 'too hard'.

There is nothing fanciful or even insightful in this analysis; discourses in which Americans talk about their television viewing activity tend to be both straightforward and redundant. Americans who say they spent an evening veging out are likely to follow the statement with an explanation of why they are entitled to veg out -- a litany of stresses or labours -- and sometimes also assertions to confirm that the world they escaped to was indeed a place that involved minimal mental activity. For example, the student in Text One quoted above followed it up with the comment, 'There was absolutely nothing on worth watching'. The woman who produced Text Three commented a few lines later, 'It was practically all commercials, nothing could hold my interest because it was always being interrupted. I hardly ever watch TV, I hadn't realised how many commercials there are'. This latter comment also positions the activity as a rare one for this person, emphasising the strategic nature of veging out as a life choice and hence acceptable within American understandings of choice.2 People's own modes of articulation may thus even deny their motivations involve pleasure.3

Choosing to enter the wasteland of television certainly can be, and often is, constructed as a bad choice. As Beeman demonstrates in his analysis of the language of choice in American advertising, making a choice is often constituted as not enough -- one must make the 'right' choice. Discourse about 'veging out' partly forecloses the possibility of the instance described being a bad choice by embedding the choice in the matrix of suffering. Yet as Carbaugh discovers in his sociolinguistic appraisal of TV talk shows, doing something 'wrong' can nonetheless be valorised in America by its formulation as a deliberate exercise of one's right to choose. The moral wrongness of the particular choice is redeemed by the articulation of a self exercising its right to make its own choices, and taking responsibility for those choices.

The power of 'veging out' as a representation of social action thus lies in its ability to simultaneously embrace the widespread discourse that 'television is a wasteland' while at the same time subsuming it under the important American discourse of choice. In so doing, it allows Americans to construct themselves as hard--working individuals who choose to waste time as a strategy for resolving the stresses and discomforts of hard work. One articulates a viewing self, that is, which is consonant with the fundamental values of American culture.

The Viewing Self

The 'viewing self' is that self, or that aspect of the self, constructed through experiences of viewing events and activities in which the person is not a participant. In the contemporary world, such viewing has increased as an activity, accommodated and mediated by film, television, video and other technologies. These technologies offer, among other things, the opportunity for virtual experiences, events and activities that we do not experience with our bodies but which nonetheless offer us comparable fodder for our cognitive processes (Drummond).

Studies of the self as viewer have long been dominated in media studies by attention to these virtual experiences as internal. From the early argument that the self is 'interpellated' by the culture industry (Adorno), to the argument that the self is socially and politically positioned in dominated, negotiating or resistant ways (Hall), to the idea of the self as simultaneously occupying multiple (and shifting) spectator positions (Modleski, Williams, Clover, Caton), emphasis has long been on how the viewer experiences structured sets of symbols, appropriates them at various levels of cohesion, cognitively and affectively orders them with regard to pre--existing understandings of and feelings about the world, and uses them in the ongoing construction of the self.

I am suggesting here the utility of turning our attention from internal to external articulations of self as viewer. I want to argue that in addition to engaging with the content of the viewing experience, people usually engage with the meaning of the viewing experience as an activity. The viewing experience is never just about engagement with content about what one watches. It is also about the activities of 'watching TV,' 'renting a video,' and 'going to the movies.' Each of these is an experience that must be internally evaluated with regard to one's pre--existing sense of self, and which may have to be verbally articulated in interaction with others. In the latter case, it provides yet more fodder for the construction of the self, as we see versions of ourselves mirrored in the responses of the other to our own self--performance.

Given the plethora of media, genres, places and events in which visual media are watched, speaking with others about one's television viewing maps one onto a complex terrain of distinctions about one's taste. One's 'taste' is never innocent, because it ties in to a complex social code that relates it to class, gender, ethnicity, education, and other social categories (Bourdieu). To represent ourselves to others as viewers of any particular kind of media is to position ourselves as particular kinds of persons in relation to others. One can use this code to articulate oneself as a particular kind of person vis--à--vis those with whom one is interacting: an equal who shares common tastes, a superior who enjoys more refined discernment, a populist who revels in his or her common tastes. To speak of our viewing allows us to generate social contact on grounds of shared experience. It allows us to confirm our tastes with regard to the social others who serve as mirrors to our selves. Of course, persons are never omnicompetent in their self--presentations, and efforts to present the self in particular ways can backfire, so that instead of appearing as a woman of discernment one appears pompous; and instead of appearing as a common Joe, one comes across as vulgar. Talking about viewing, in other words, always involves risk. In examining how people manage this risk in their social interactions, as through framing their experience as 'veging out,' we can learn much about how people construct themselves as viewers.


'Veging out' is not the only verbal strategy by means of which Americans solve the conundrum of the viewing self. Nor is there anything unique in this American conundrum. Ethnographic accounts clearly demonstrate that many societies offer public condemnatory discourses about television that are at odds with actual viewing practices. The content of television in Belize is 'destroying a whole generation' (Wilk), in Egypt it's a flood of 'moral pollution' (Armbrust), in the Netherlands it's 'an embarrassment' (Alasuutaari). People's ways of speaking about themselves as viewers are clearly often a result of an ambivalence born of their pleasure, on the one hand, and their understanding that one should not be getting pleasure from such stuff, on the other. The result is often discourse that expresses guilt, or embarrassment, as summed up by Alasuutari's informant who said 'I'm ashamed to admit it, but I watch Dallas.'

Alasuutari's reliance on interviewing, though, captures the conundrum but not the cultural solutions. An interview with a sociologist is a very different kind of speech act from the quotidian contexts in which people construct themselves as television viewers in interaction with friends, family, the person sitting next to you at the bar, and so forth (Briggs). My objective in this brief exercise is to draw our attention away from interviewing toward ethnography, and away from attention to internal subjectivities to the interactive contexts in which the self is constructed in everyday life.

Author Biography

Mark Allen Peterson