‘It’s like you disappear’ – Fleabag’s Attentional Conflicts
In his book Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age that has been extensively discussed on these pages, Alberto Acerbi asks how the diffusion of digital media might influence the dissemination and success of cultural traits, and how this in turn affects cultural transmission. The quality and modes of human attention might be considered a case in point. How we allocate attention, and what modes of attention we have at our disposal, are under transformation under the influence of changes in the media we use, and this in turn is reflected by cultural objects. In this blog, distraction-conflict theory helps explain how an acclaimed television series dramatizes attentional conflict and probes the implications of a contemporary phenomenon that many of us are afflicted by: being constantly suspended between two places.
Adapted to the screen from Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ one-woman-play Touch, the BBC series Fleabag has become a huge success. Its first season won a 2017 BAFTA; season two received six Emmy’s for comedy acting and writing (11 nominations). The main character, played by Waller-Bridge, is a Londoner in her early thirties who struggles to give her life meaning.Fleabag’s most discussed feature is its innovative use of audience address or breaking the fourth wall. We are deeply familiar with this confessional mode from reality TV, where participants are often interviewed to retrospectively narrate or comment upon the action in a room where they are seemingly all by themselves and talk directly to the camera (think of Big Brother’s ‘diary rooms’). Direct address can distance us from the fiction, generating effects of defamiliarization or Brechtian alienation, ‘exposing the technology’ to shock the audience out of immersion in the diegesis and alerting them to its constructed nature. But it can also immerse and engage the viewer. Fleabag dusts off the device and makes it new again—by gradually revealing the nature of the relation between character and audience to be different from what we at first might assume.
The protagonist’s frequent narrative asides and conspiratorial glances at the camera establish an intimate relation with the viewer. In interviews, Waller-Bridge calls the device her ‘secret camera friend’. Fleabag constantly annotates her life for us, making snarky remarks about her family members, giving us a live report during sex. She confides in us where she doesn’t take the other characters seriously, like when her boyfriend Harry breaks up with her and assures her he won’t be back (‘He will be back’), or when the priest tells her they won’t be having sex (‘We’ll last a week’ ). We become her co-conspirators.
Not a ‘mental health comedy’
Much has been made of the meaning of Fleabag’s audience address. Some read the device as introspection, arguing that ‘Fleabag’s you is actually herself,’ or compare the fourth-wall-breaking habit to prayer. Others associate her ‘compulsive self-narration’ with dissociation or call the series a ‘mental health comedy’. The poor fictional woman has been diagnosed with all sorts of things from Borderline Personality Disorder with traits of narcissism and Antisocial Personality Disorder (di Betta 2020) to PTSD (Landau 2018). Such readings that pathologize the protagonist (‘Her pathology is our pleasure’) miss the mark, by implying a clear boundary between the ‘pathological’ character and the supposedly ‘normal’ viewer, who is unproblematically entertained. Countering these ‘mental health’ readings, I read the main character’s habits as habitual acts of ‘checking out’ akin to checking your phone when engaged in conversation.
According to Distraction-conflict theory (Baron 1986), the presence of others can distract us from tasks we are engaged with. This can lead to attentional conflicts, meaning we are at a loss regarding how to allocate attention in case of mutually exclusive inputs asking for a response. Such a conflict can cause a cognitive overload that produces arousal, to which we may respond by activating and relying on heuristics and schemata to guide our perceptions and social judgments.
‘Phubbing’ as a coping mechanism
This has consequences for how we construct sociality. Studies of Smartphone use during co-present social interaction show that phubbing (from ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’) diminishes the experienced quality of conversation and by extent the relationship, as our attention is only half directed at the other, and half at WhatsApp messages or social media feeds (Vanden Abeele et al. 2019). The phone user enters a state of ‘absent presence’ (Gergen 2002), being physically present, but mentally absent. Feelings of affiliation and intimacy increase when conversation partners display signs of attentiveness. Distraction may keep conversation partners from self-disclosure, which is needed to develop trusting, intimate relationships. One leg in the actual and one in the virtual, a large number of people spend a significant portion of their day ‘alone together’ (Turkle 2011).
Fleabag uses technology and performance to distract herself and her audience in a way that is similar to activities on social media. She is annotating her life continuously, commenting on what she is doing in real time (‘jogging’). Fleabag engages in a form of live streaming, the ongoing broadcasting and documenting of one’s daily life and thoughts, including the mundane and intimate.
The more she connects with her ‘secret camera friend’, the further she disconnects from the people in her life. Focusing on ‘us,’ she doesn’t have to deal with her immediate reality. The moment she turns to us, the other characters become blurry: a literal manifestation of her cognitive act of losing focus on the people she is interacting with and retreating in her own private disclosures.
At one point, she reveals her awareness of the audience as a presence within the diegesis: ‘I have friends….,’ she says to her therapist, with a wink to the camera, ‘Oh, they’re… they’re always there.’ It is like she admits that these asides are her way of coping with loneliness. It becomes progressively clear that Fleabag uses ‘us’ to distract herself, to deflect painful moments, and to keep boredom at bay.
Fleabag dramatizes habitual acts of checking out that has become such a big part of how many of us attend to the world, with one (mental) eye glued to a screen. Every time she checks in with her audience, she is effectively ‘phubbing’ the people in her life.
Distraction-conflicts tax our attentional capacity, which leads to cognitive shortcuts. These lead to social behaviors aimed at destabilizing cognitive economy, such as careless encoding of events, the use of heuristics when attributing causality evaluations, and relying on stereotypes and social schemata instead of actual markers in person perception (Baron 1986). Like Fleabag herself, most of the supporting characters remain nameless and are indicated by flattering nicknames like ‘Bus Rodent,’ ‘Hot Misogynist or ‘Arsehole Guy’. We see them through her eyes, reduced to stereotypes.
As her audience, we are not let off the hook: we are complicit. Not only do we enable her in her coping strategies, we use her misadventures as our own distraction. After all, fiction is itself a distraction. As Alice Bennett writes in Contemporary Fictions of Attention, “the play of attention and distraction is part of the structure of narrative itself” (2018, 174). In this case, breaking the fourth wall is a powerful way to direct and modulate audience attention. How many of us have not at least on occasion ‘phubbed’ a film or TV-series, to the chagrin of the people we are watching with? Yet both the show and the character are hardly ‘phubbable’: they don’t let us get away with dispersed attention, due to Waller-Bridge’s attention-grabbing ‘performative shamelessness’ (Dobson 2015), the fast-paced editing, and the frequent and snappy asides and meaningful looks that we could miss by blinking, let alone texting. Fleabag is the center of attention and our main distraction, and while she is allowed to tune out, we aren’t.
When in season two her love interest, the Hot Priest, catches her in the middle of a quick aside to us, he asks ‘What was that?’ and points in the direction of the camera. ‘That thing you’re doing? It’s like you disappear.’ Panicked, she looks at the viewer once again. ‘There!’ he says. ‘Where did you just go?’ ‘Nowhere,’ she tells him, but turns to the camera with a look of alarm: we have been caught. By the end of the second season, after she has established a real connection with the Priest, it is suggested she might have grown out of her coping mechanism of distracting herself with her virtual audience.
That which grabs our attention has obvious psychological appeal, and it must have its advantages if, with Acerbi, we presume a ‘good design’ behind cultural changes. In the digital age, attentional conflict has become an integral part of our lives. While William James (1890) still famously described attention in opposition to distraction (Zerstreutheit) as a focused concentration of consciousness, theorists of modernity like Benjamin (1935), Kracauer (1924), and Simmel (1971), each in their own way tried to make sense of the role of distraction as formative for modern subjectivity (Van Alphen 2017). Extending their arguments to the digital information age, Kristin Veel (2011) argues that we have now entered a stage in which the ability to focus on more than one thing simultaneously has become so habitual that distraction might be regarded as a prerequisite for concentration. Could we consider such a shift in cognition as another example of cultural evolution?
In the end, this series confronts us with the ways in which we (barely) attend to others surrounding us, but also to the media that we use to distract ourselves. This is not ‘just’ a feminist issue, a predicament of the millennial generation, a mental health issue, or a God-shaped hole in our culture. Norms and expectations of what it means to attend to something or someone are under transformation, and Fleabag invites us to notice and reflect on these ongoing changes.
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