Every moment, we make choices about what we notice. Our diffuse consciousness zeroes in on a particular person, memory, landscape, melody, odor, or taste before sprawling out again.
Countless political campaigns, philosophical treatises, and works of art seek to draw our attention toward what might otherwise go unseen. The suffering of other people; political structures that enrich some and silence others; the beauty of a spider stretching its legs along a leaf’s ragged edges—these are the kinds of objects that we might profit (ethically) from noticing, but which we often ignore.
Sometimes a bid to elevate our awareness—of, say, racism, environmental devastation, or disease—entails some further goal. We are asked to donate money or time, or call our legislators. But often we are asked only to notice and judge, suggesting that acts of attention have value independent of their short-term consequences. We are quicker to fault a person for failing to see something they should have—corruption at their business, poverty in their neighborhood—than we are to condemn someone for paying attention to something better left ignored. Whether it’s pornography, stock markets, NASCAR races, or foreign films, we chalk it up to taste, presuming that we’re entitled to direct our attention toward whatever objects we wish.
This week’s This American Life calls this last assumption into question. It explores the ethics of a special kind of attention: the spectatorship of a mass audience unsympathetically directed at a single person.
The session’s first segment introduces us to a man named Nasubi. In 1998, Nasubi, a 22-year-old aspiring comedian, got what he thought was his chance at fame: a segment on a Japanese reality TV show. Then he learned the show’s premise. He would have to live in an empty, unfurnished apartment with no clothes, no food, and no contact with the outside world. The show’s producers left him one thing: heaps of magazines. He’d have to enter sweepstakes contests in those magazines and hope he won enough food to survive. The producers told him he couldn’t leave the apartment until he’d won $10,000 worth of prizes.
Japan in the late 1990s was home to a “sweepstakes mania,” producer Stephanie Foo reports. The country’s economy was limping, and some people wondered whether one could live entirely off sweepstakes winnings. Nasubi, then, was not just a scapegoat or a way for viewers to feel superior. His situation provided an exaggerated version of the financial woes many Japanese viewers were struggling with.
Nasubi stayed in the apartment for almost a year. Throughout, he was naked, isolated, and subsisting almost entirely on his sweepstakes winnings: sugary drinks, bags of rice, and dog food. (For the first two weeks, while he waited for his first prizes to arrive, the staff gave him some bread and water.) Embarrassed by his nudity and feeling as if he ought to endure the challenge, he never made an escape attempt. The door wasn’t even locked.
The producers told Nasubi that the apartment ordeal was an experiment, and that he might never make it on air. But the whole time, his apartment stay was being shown to a television audience that reached 16 million.
Nasubi was an aspiring comedian. He wanted fame, and he wanted to make people laugh. But the laughter the reality show elicited set him up as a subhuman target of mockery. The producers punctuated his actions with “boing boing” sound effects and rainbow letters floating above his head, and his moments of despondency or private silliness were subjected to ridicule. These techniques gave the audience permission to laugh. And they put control over the show’s attempts to provoke laughter firmly in the hands of the producers, not Nasubi, the comedian.
Foo admitted that while watching the show, she occasionally laughed. “I couldn’t help it,” she said. But most of the time, when the studio audience laughed, she felt sick. Laughter can function as affirmation or applause; but it can also sting. Prompted by the reality show’s goofy production techniques, and distanced from accountability by the anonymity that a crowd affords, the studio audience laughed and laughed. This kind of exposure was not what Nasubi had hoped for.
The episode prevents us from contemplating Nasubi directly. We learn about him through the eyes of a reporter, and her skepticism and commentary color our understanding of his situation. Whereas the reality show invited viewers to degrade him, Foo’s reporting does not give us that option.
The episode’s other two segments dwell on spectatorship in more lighthearted ways. The middle segment follows Roger Barker, a psychologist who, in 1949, dispatched a team of researchers to exhaustively record, minute by minute, the actions and emotions of a 7-year-old boy. The fieldwork resulted in a 435-page study, One Boy’s Day. The last segment introduces us to a husband-and-wife team of comedians whose debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in the early 1960s runs into a curious obstacle: a surprise too delightful for me to spoil here.
But it’s the episode’s first act that raises the most challenging questions about spectacle and spectatorship. The segment haunts, especially if you listen to it online, where you’ll see a single disturbing screenshot from the Japanese show. Of the episode’s three acts, the first is the hardest to listen to. We feel humiliated on Nasubi’s behalf, and we’re uneasily reminded of the exploitation that a voyeuristic, fame-obsessed mass culture affords.
But sometimes the things that demand our attention require effort. That difficulty is sometimes—though not always—significant: a sign that we have apprehended something worth noticing.
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