On Society’s Search for Pleasure through other People’s Pleasure

Much of our lives is entertainment and much of that is masochism. Consider the luxury style of property television serials. Invariably, this involves a super-rich couple touring mansions before deciding which ten-bedroomed, twenty-bathroomed, one-million-acred property suits their desires. “I’m just not sure if the tiles around the swimming pool suit me,” he will say to her, turning with pained dissatisfaction to give the camera another exquisitely tanned semi-profile. Oh, aye, good point, we all answer in our small flats and little houses, hearing our neighbours’ renovations and drum practice.

If these programmes featured more modest homes, even I would be tempted to see them as capitalist propaganda — dangling the carrot of social mobility before our gaze. So opulent are the houses, though, that it would be preposterous for most of us to think we could attain such wealth. I want a nice house with a garden and a home gym, but I am not going to depress myself with aspirations for stables, saunas, and en suite bathrooms.

Welcome to Vicariotica — entertainment offering pleasure achieved through observing that of other people and experiencing its arousing effect on the imagination. This is a purified pleasure, without any messy emotions or physicality, or onerous work. In the modern age, sophisticated technology and sophisticated editing have opened up a veritable Eden of vicarious experiences for us.

Vicariotica is unlimited pleasure, achieved effortlessly, with the sole obvious disadvantage that it is not ours. Yet merely inhabiting the glow of extremes of opulence can be preferable to our bounded and laborious existence. All entertainment opens up realms of the imagination in which we might get lost, but an excess of vicariotica offers no route out of the woods, and anything to gain before one can escape.

Pornography is a major form of vicariotica and it benefits most from the internet. Erotic desire is fulfilled through the observation of the experiences of strangers — something which strikes us as creepy when it comes to voyeurs jacking off in dirty raincoats in a peep show booth yet perfectly normal when the act is performed at home. That it has widespread appeal would be silly to deny. The more important point is that it misappropriates the appeal of relational experiences — compensating with an excess of novelty, perversity and feigned, frictionless enthusiasm which distorts expectations and inspires compulsion.

A cousin of pornography is a strange practice originating in South Korea called the ‘mukbang’. In essence, this involves watching other people eat. In practice it often involves watching people eat enormous quantities of food, with a great deal of slurping and smacking of lips. In Korea, mukbang creators tend not to speak, enabling uninterrupted attention to the act of eating. In the West, predictably, consumption is punctuated by outbursts of chatter.

A 2020 review of literature on mukbang watching by Kirkaburun and others found reports of different motivations among viewers, ranging from loneliness to sexual fetishes. It also found evidence, though, of viewers experiencing vicarious satisfaction:

“Gillespie (2019) argued that magical eating fantasy (i.e., the idea of eating as much as desired without suffering the consequences) was one of the most important motivations that drove individuals to watch mukbang. According to Gillespie (2019), watching mukbang provided viewers satisfaction via the sensation of binge eating themselves.”

Mukbang creators can encourage this fantasy of limitless consumption without aesthetic or medical consequences. Korean YouTuber Banz acquired millions of views eating truckloads of food while maintaining his ripped physique. The man claimed to exercise a ridiculous eight-to-ten hours a day, which, if it is even close to being true, must have put a fearsome amount of stress on his body. His viewers never saw that, though. They just saw the food — and the abs. As the authors write:

“Vicarious viewing serves as a compensation of acts that an individual would never perform in real life and/or as a fulfilment of known experiences regarding the watched act via triggering a memory.”

This seems to be a cousin of the simultaneous obsession with and revulsion from food experienced by people with eating disorders

Sometimes, though, the fascination turns on itself. Some forms of ‘mukbang’ involve people eating such vast amounts of food as to become morbidly obese, or chowing down on dishes most people would find unspeakably gross. One bizarre mukbang veteran named ‘Nikocado Avocado’ has gained hundreds of pounds since entering the genre, and has made his swollen size part of his brand to such an extent that he wears a t-shirt reading, “It’s just water weight.” A woman going by the name ‘Ssoyoung’ obnoxiously consumed a live squid in one of her videos last year (another woman almost died while trying to eat a live octopus in 2019).

I wonder if, as well as the ‘benign masochism’ we experience when testing our resolve by watching the grotesque, people distance themselves from what is shameful in their desires by marvelling derisively at more extreme examples of them. This might be similar to how viewers of pornography are liable to degrade its participants even while using their products.

There are other forms of vicariotica. There is the social media influencer, whose energetic and lavish lifestyle exists strangely, tantalisingly independent of a recognisably exclusive athletic, or aesthetic, or intellectual gift. There is Reality TV, with its pile-up of aristocratic pretensions and lumpenproletarian tastes. Even podcasters appeal to our weakness for vicariotica. As I wrote on another platform:

“Unlike friends and family in real life, such people are always there, always ‘on’ and demand nothing of us except, perhaps, a few dollars a month. This makes it a more emotionally stultifying pastime the more that one invests of oneself in a show. We have all encountered people who appear to have one foot in our world and one foot in the world of The Joe Rogan Experience, Chapo Trap House or Cum Town. They have embraced an illusion of sociability.”

Vicariotica achieves the strange trick of inflating and flattening desire, reminding me of a balloon which fills with air that leaks out of its side. Pleasure is idealised and exaggerated, to the point where true fulfillment is impossible to find except through second-hand experience. Accessibility, too, can depress the potential for investment in long-term gratification — similarly to how the passing euphoria of substance abuse can depress one’s potential.

The niche, but growing popularity of vicariotica reflects a fundamental dissatisfaction with life. As it becomes more difficult to form and sustain relationships, and to find secure careers and build our stable homes, vicariotica is there to try to fill the gap. To some extent — by accident if not design — it is a new form of propaganda, reducing people to hopelessness. Our existence can never live up to an ideal. What is the point in saving up for a nicer home, for example, when it won’t have a patio and a Jacuzzi? 

Additionally, if people take vicarious enjoyment from other people’s luxury, how much more powerful will that pleasure-seeking urge become when it can be more fulfilled on a more sensory, immersive level by the advancement of virtual reality. At the risk of sounding too ascetic, pleasure abstracted from struggle is merely sweet gruel — enjoyable and nourishing enough on occasion, but cloying and stultifying if consumed for long. 

Personal and communal achievement are required to overcome a dependence on vicariotica. One has to feel the more substantial satisfaction of those pleasures that are prizes of adventure and accomplishment — on a personal and a mutual basis. One can still take vicarious satisfaction from the lives of others. Storytelling is as old as community, after all. It can be ennobling inasmuch as it reminds us of the individual and collective potential of our species. But it should inspire rather than replace or debase our aspirations. We are meant to act, not be perpetual spectators, or voyeurs.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, The Spectator and the Washington Examiner, among others.

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