Textes et contributions |

Actes des journées d'étude "Narratology and the New Social Dimension of Narrative" (01-02 Février 2010)

The Cognitive Turn in American Entertainment Media: Smart Series and Serial Story-Telling - Divina Frau Meigs

In these series, storytelling is reframed as detection rather than investigation. Procedure and exposure are conducted with new scientific tools coming from forensic psychology and cognitive sciences. They feature cognition as inductive reasoning, heightened attention and intuitive insights that are like heuristic routines for the heroes. The detective method consists in an investigation that eliminates red herrings and false diagnoses logically, because they are proved impossible though seemed probable. They invent a new character, much inspired from Sherlock Holmes, the “psychic detective”, who can be a procedural cop or doctor. They give a new legitimacy to their “gifts”, “talents”, “intuitions”, by presenting very “scientifically” constructed shows. They tend to create a confusion between cognition and  psychic sciences as well as para-mental and para-normal phenomena.  

I.1 The medical detection

House is the closest to Sherlock Holmes to whom the series pays tribute several times. It is carried on like a cop mystery story, where the major suspects are germs and genes, instead of the traditional fingerprints. In uncanny ways, they reveal the motives of the people who are sick, as their sickness is often connected to a lie. So Dr House figures out the cause of the ailments by detecting people’s secrets and lies. The reliance on cognitive psychology is very heavy, even where it might not seem obviously applicable.

In Lie to me, Dr. Cal Lightman, is a genius psychologist with an expertise in body language and especially micro-expressions. He belongs to a private company, the Lightman Group, that operates as an independent contractor to assist local and federal investigations. He practices law enforcement through applied psychology, using any psychological technique he deems necessary to elicit the truth, however confounding it may be.

As for Mental, it is the closest to neuro-psychology, as Dr. Jack Gallagher uses rather unorthodox methods to get inside the patient’s head to help cure them. He helps an 8 year old boy suffering from bipolar disorder by playing a video game existing only in his head. He looks into serious personality disorders like autism, obsessive compulsive behaviour, addiction, but also uncovers people who fake their disorders in order to get more attention and love as in the case of a veteran of the Iraq War…

I.2 The police detection

If the medical detection is keen on procedures and lends veracity to cognitive applied psychology, the police detection applies it to solve real-life murders. Medical detection is about saving people and lives, about saving the living, whereas police detection is about solving murder cases and absolving the dead. With police mysteries, detection takes a new dimension that can be attached to security politics more obviously. In all the series of the corpus, the central agency of reference is the FBI (not trusting people inside the USA), in connection with Homeland Security (Fringe), with the occasional collaboration with NSA (Numb3rs). Occasionally local police investigation teams are the focus like the Arizona District Attorney’s office for Medium or the California Bureau of Investigation for the Mentalist  ­­(which, in real life, became another agency in 2007, before the show premiered, to become the “California Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence”).

In this subset of the corpus, Monk features a private consultant to the San Francisco police force. Adrian Monkis the closest to Sherlock Holmes (and not unlike Dr House) with whom he shares great capacities for observation and deduction as well as a series of odd compulsive behaviour troubles and phobias. Monk also relies on the collaboration of a friend and is in competition with the police inspectors who all tend to be sceptical of his skills before rallying to him.  

In Medium, Allison DuBois acts as a research medium who has a gift, passed from generation to generation:  she is able to talk to dead people, as well as foresee events, and witness past events in her dreams.  She has to convince her colleagues in the criminal justice system that her psychic abilities can help them solve mysterious crimes, whose solution lies beyond the grave. Information on certain people or crimes come to her in dreams or in cryptic visions which she needs to interpret, as they do not mean what they seem to suggest.  

The Mentalist, Patrick Jane, is an independent consultant with a remarkable track record for solving serious crimes by using his amazing skills of observation. Jane also makes frequent use of his mentalist abilities as a psychic medium using paranormal abilities (that he reveals were feigned when in was in a TV show).  Psych stars Shawn Spencer, a young crime consultant for the Santa Barbara Police Department whose “heightened observational skills” and impressive detective instincts allow him to convince people that he solves cases with psychic abilities.

Numb3rsfollows FBI Special Agent Don Eppes and his mathematical genius brother, Charlie Eppes, who helps Don solve difficult crimes. The insights provided by Charlie’s mathematics are always in some way crucial to solving the crime. Real mathematics are used, around probability and prediction, to help the detection process, like site-prediction modelling, belief propagation, design recovery, neural networks, hyperspectral imaging, group dynamics, game theory… The series tends to show that mathematics are connected to cognition and the brain in the kind of probabilistic prediction  that conducts our everyday life.

 Fringe features the special agent Olivia Dunham, helped by mad scientist Walter Bishop, and his resourceful son, Peter Bishop. They investigate aspects of “fringe” science such as rare diseases, chimeras, trans-humans with psychic abilities, teleportation, etc. The show combines such unorthodox “fringe” science with FBI investigative techniques to scrutinize “the Pattern”, a series of unexplained, strange and scary occurrences that are happening all over the world (not unlike those in the X-files).  

II. Representation and social cognition

In these “smart” series, the mental and the spiritual are connected by the psychic. The qualifier “smart” is used to describe this trend because it uses cognition to insert the desired outcome in a mediated situation so as to “engage” viewers. The nature of this engagement has changed, as it is based on a cognitive quandary —truth or secrecy— that requires the viewer to take part in the ethical dilemma raised by the narrative —right or wrong.  It is not sure that such storytelling changes the nature of narrative but it gives it new insights from social cognition, especially the concepts of “representation”, “priming” and “framing”.

II.1 Detection and the fallacy of causal reasoning in storytelling

Social cognition theory posits that information is represented in the brain as “cognitive elements” such as schemas, attributions, or stereotypes that have a complex relation to behaviour, attitude and beliefs.  It focuses on how these cognitive elements are processed by people to take decisions and to solve problems. Social cognition recombines elements of evolutionary psychology with brain theory, with a focus on several tasks that show detection as a bias in reasoning. The cognitive storytelling in the series, episode per episode, explores such flaws in classic reasoning, by focusing on some basic cognitive fallacies, like representativeness heuristic, base rate fallacy and confirmation biases.

In causal reasoning, some biases, based on attribution, lead to the belief that there is a strong link between emotionally relevant events and emotionally relevant causes. The probability of an event will be associated with the resemblance to past events, a very useful process in everyday life. They are often connected with some form of magical associative thinking, where causal reasoning looks for correlation between utterances and certain events, as if there was mental causation, the brain having an effect on the physical world more or less directly. Characters such as House, Gallagher or Monk are themselves border-line cases, with behavioural oddities and irrational fears or thoughts that place them on the side of the potentially ill themselves and draw sympathy because of these very flaws.

The detection narrative attracts attention to these quirky events and quirky people, making them look less abnormal and aberrant than usual. All the series of the corpus are focalised on the evaluation of uncertain events that do not fit in the salient characteristics of most crimes or medical cases, so that no normative reasoning can be applied to them. Based on empirical examples, they demonstrate systematic errors in the evaluation of uncertain events. They show how the neglect of relevant base rates and other cognitive biases can lead to major errors, as often exemplified in House or in Monk, where this recognition drives the suspense.

They tend to extol and excuse the base rate fallacy (the belief that probability rates based on consensus information are false). This fallacy happens when a person makes a detection without taking into account prior knowledge of the probability that it will occur. Most police or medical forces apply those statistical rules and are shown in a state of failure by the psychic detective. It affects the operational effectiveness of detection programmes that are well established like hospitals (detecting diseases) or FBI (detecting crimes). The confusion between attribution and disposition, the detective paying attention to disposition and contingency whereas the institution works on attribution and correlation… Personality traits cannot be discovered in behaviour, but are rather the creations of the mind.  

To expose the mind at work, the series tend to show the institutions in a state of impotence because of their lack of inductive inference that prevents them from making valid detections. The top decision-makers in the hospital or in the police force are seeking out actively evidence that confirms their hypothesis or evidence, while ignoring what could disconfirm their perspective, as is often shown in the phase of collecting evidence for the detection. By contrast, the psychic detective always finds unexpected or unseen evidence and connects it right away to some mental causation, around lies or secrecy. They also show that detection needs to be based on cognitive tenets such as attention (automaticity and priming) and memory (schemas, primacy and recency). In contrast with mainstream psychology, dominated by behaviourism, their approach first rejected as illusory, and with scepticism by all the professionals, finally gains credit as they reveal the strength of internal mental states such as beliefs, desires and lies…  

II.2 Priming and framing cognitive scripts and schemas

So narrative has been changed by the primacy given to social cognition. Representing brain states as well as germ suspects is difficult so the main character carries the load of making the viewer believe in it. Two cognitive processes that increase the accessibility of schemas are priming and framing. Priming refers to any experience immediately prior to a situation that cause a schema to be more accessible, recency and frequency playing an important part in the detection method. It is closely related to salience, —the degree to which a particular social object stands out relative to other social objects in a situation. The higher the salience of an object the more likely that schemas for that object will be made accessible.  The capacities of insight of the heroes, their reading of the signs are often a result of priming that is visualized with flashbacks, but also an unusual amount of flashforwards, all playing on memory of scripts and schemas and on the capacity to foresee the future to modify the past.

Framing refers to a schema of interpretation—that is, a collection of situations and stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events. Throughout their life, they have built a series of mental emotional filters that are used as heuristic devices or shortcuts to make sense of the world. The choices they make are influenced by such cognitive frames, that are conducive to emotional representation. In the series, framing is highly correlated to cognitive fallacies such as representativeness heuristics or confirmation biases, some frames being obviously wrong or inadequate.

Detection then, in social cognition as exemplified by the “psychic detective” consists of seeking to explain an event, by understanding the proper frame of reference.  Psychics are individuals who constantly project into the world around them the interpretive frames that allow them to make sense of it. Their special talent consists of being especially aware of such frames, and also at being frame-shifters, capable to revise their views when incongruity calls for a frame-shift.  They can integrate new information very easily and very fast and pay selective attention to consistency and inconsistency in facts and events. They can go against pre-established schemas and scripts; they can fight the confirmation bias of the mind and alter original schemas to fit the new reality. They can go from brain to mind, —the real meaning of “psychic”. In Numb3rs,Charlie is challenged on one of his long-standing pieces of mathematical work and starts working on a new theory, Cognitive Emergence Theory, that allows for “bridge laws” to be stated, between two events that are in conflict or incommensurable. The series points at the absence of rational continuity between a fact and its explanation and the scepticism occasioned by such a conceptual gap is lifted by Charlie’s contributions to solve mysteries.

II.3 Characterization

The storylines are supported by the characterization. In smart series, they tend to focus on unconventional medical theories and practices or controversial insights and intuitions or ethically questionable decisions. The discrepancies are highlighted by the other characters’ reactions to the psychic detector, as they are torn between belief and disbelief.  Valuable new evidence is provided psychically, to advance the plot and it often turns out that the victims have lied, about their symptoms, their circumstances, or personal histories. The assumption of lying often guides the heroes in their hypotheses building, when it is not connected to brain manipulation per se. In Fringe (season two, episode 10) the reason for Walter’s insanity is revealed: William Bell removed pieces of his brain tissue to hide his memories of how to open a door to the other universe. Ultimately, Thomas Newton finds these pieces and links them to Walter’s brain to find out how to open the door, but the pieces eventually degrade. In Heroes, manipulation is everywhere and deception can take many shapes, including shape-shifting, a visual form of frame-shifting.

The storylines are supported by visual effects. In House, there is a fantastic voyage into the brain and into the body more than in any other series of the corpus.In Heroes, the lives of people across the globe who possess various superhuman powers as they struggle to cope with their everyday lives and prevent foreseen disasters from occurring are presented with many visual effects to give the viewer a feel for their speed and their unusual energy. The storylines are also supported by narrative arcs within the larger narrative, each with their own finality. The episodic and seasonal rhythm is organized in “volumes” with longer and shorter story “arcs”, as best exemplified by Heroes. These series are taking the cognitive notion of “scripts” further, by implying that the life scripts can be changed, if only people were aware of it. Compared to earlier US series heroes, that were pre-determined and could not change, cognitive heroes can evolve in their relations to their teams, and modify their inner self, according to the cognitive idea that scripts and frames can be revised, that emotions can guide reasoning and relationships if only attended to…  Mental is the most extreme example, with the hero dealing with his own depression and fear of becoming schizophrenic, and getting himself fired from his work.  

The implications for storytelling are various: characterization shows patterns of collaboration and cooperation among heroes that displace previous emphasis on conflict or unilateral decision-making. The characters are increasingly complex and ambiguous, with a relative indecisiveness about them that is related to their need for self-fulfilment as an ongoing search that is unpredictable from the outset.  The narrative advances by serializing experience, as a felt practice that shows that adaptability and “mentality” are key. Felt experience is very important in such series, as a means of capturing “affordance” in its double meaning: describing all action possibilities that are mentally possible and also showing the hero’s awareness of these possibilities. By so doing, the connection is established with the viewer, whose felt experience is solicited as well.  

Continuing the narrative via other media means: new ways to engage with the viewers

The relation to affordance and felt experience is implied in two ways: the clear call on experts in real life, and the continuity between fiction and reality established by these experts in publications and dedicated websites as well as webisodes or even mobisodes.

 Smart series, even more so than other Hollywood-produced series, rely on experts to produce the felt experience of real life. In House, the central storylines of several early episodes were based on the work of Berton Roueché, a staff writer for The New Yorker between 1944 and 1994, who specialized in features about unusual medical cases. The premises for other episodes have been inspired by Lisa Sanders, a professor of medicine at Yale, who is also a technical advisor to the series. The original premise of Medium was based on reported experiences from self-proclaimed spiritual medium Allison DuBois, who claims to have worked with law enforcement agencies across the country in criminal investigations. The character in Lie to me is based on Dr. Paul Ekman, a notable psychologist and expert on body language and facial expressions at UC San Francisco.

Contrary to some Hollywood classic tendency, there are no spinoffs to these series. They seem to obey a cognitive strategy of continuity by integrating and engaging the viewers more deeply in using the digital social networks. The cognitive notion of engagement is explored via various cross-media endeavors, with a heavy use of new media, but also tie-in books and novels. Blogs of experts, games and webisodes are used to continue the felt experience.

Heroes has posted a series of three webisodes collectively titled “Going Postal” (available exclusively online in July 2008), followed by another fours sets in September 2009. Heroes offers yet another option, with webcomics, that supplement the television drama and are presented as part of the  “Heroes Evolutions experience”. Written by the show’s writers, they give additional character background and plot information and provide photos behind the scenes. In Numb3rs, several mathematicians working as consultants have produced a book entitled The Numbers Behind Numb3rs: Solving Crime with Mathematics, explaining some of the mathematical techniques used in real FBI cases. An education program called “We All Use Math Every Day” is run by Texas Instruments and supported by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, to provide educational resources based on the examples featured in episodes of the show, available online.

Part of the smartness of smart series is their capacity to elicit other formats, to spread the story by engaging the audience to experience it differently. Such series are testing new ways of evolving online. They are working on virtual reality and the immersive experience of the computer generated networks to increase even more the “serial experiencing” as it were that they afford their audience. By adding interactivity to the experience, they engage the viewers into being party to the actions and situations that they witness.  Smart series do not play so much on identification to the main hero (he is quirky and not likable) or on projection into the situation (it is often too extreme to be likely) and as such do not rely on the traditional ploys of psychology. They rely on engagement into cognitive dilemmas that are also ethical dilemmas about truth and lies, good and evil, by turning the viewer into a witness who is also a third party. Having the possibility of expressing oneself in the online sequels or on the official and unofficial websites adds to the immersive experience. In social cognition, identification and projection are not the expected work of the fan, engagement and productivity are. John Fiske in his analysis of fan productivity relates it to the openness of the work and, in many cases, series are the open work par excellence.

This third party engagement increases not only affordance but also vicariance, the capacity to feel for and with the other. The emotion carried through the smart narrative acts as a means of regulating the viewer’s moral sense: as a witness he/she is confronted to an ethical dilemma, often based on contradictory reasoning, in the face of which he/she is expected to make a choice, a commitment. By doing so the viewer goes through a process of appropriation of the beliefs or values that he/she is witnessing. The logic of positions developed by smart series is in fact very seductive while at the same time very constraining, as it invites the viewer to change his/her mind, literally. The smart narratives tend to present the back-stage of the feelings of a character as well as the workings of the brain, allowing the viewer to be even more a witness of human motivations, contradictions, and eliciting even more the sense of being party to an ethical dilemma that is also a cognitive conflict… Vicarious experience meets serial experiencing.

Vicariance is what associates detection to affordance and cognitive learning, for it works as in game theory: the viewer either increases his or her life strategies according to the progress of the plot (Plan A) or develops a plan B with regard to plan A — in a process that is quite mimetic of the hypothesis-building of many of the psychic detectives in the series of the corpus. The capacity to elaborate a backup plan is an integral part of the pleasure presented in the representation. The viewer’s interest for such series derives from a cognitive reference frame connected to information processing and problem resolution. At the end of this cumulative vicarious process, the viewer gains points of experience…     

Vicariance here is a potential for simulation, the “potential space” described by Donald Winnicott as part of the development of the “thinking self” in cognition. The cognitive perspective allows for a subtler take on the subject: the engagement brought about by the smart series sets an ethical dilemma and enables the revision of the logics of their ethical positioning. Smart series are a transitional genre, as Winnicott would define it, “an area for transitional experience to which internal reality and external reality both contribute simultaneously. (…) This area is not contested as it is not required to be anything else but a place of rest for an individual engaged in the endless task of maintaining internal reality and external reality separated and yet connected at the same time.”  Smart series fit the description, except that they are not “ a place of rest” but are in fact trying to make up for a lot of social malaise and ethical unrest in post 9/11 Unites States.

III. The meta-frame: security politics and the mourning of 9/11

Per se, this corpus of series proceeds to a major framing act, by participating in the social construction of cognition and influencing it via the masse media sources that series have become. They have a selective influence on the popular circulation of meaning and the mainstream construction of cognition: as storytelling tools, they define and package cognition in a rhetoric that encourages certain interpretations and discourages others.

In many ways, these narratives try to bring together identity politics and morality politics within a richer canvas, as they recombine heroism with ordinariness (identity) and spirituality (morality). Smart series are a way for American culture to adapt to the post 9/11 environment and the new context of intelligent networks in globalization. Part of the attraction of cognition in these series lies in a two-folded message: some values are stable like individualism or self empowerment; but other values can cohabit in mental spaces, like belief in other spiritual dimensions and science… They come at a time when consensus building in the United States seems more important than dissensus.  By renewing the science fiction narrative, and displacing it from outer worlds to inner brains, they signify that the enemy is within and Americans have to become aware of it and to recognize the signs.

These series could be seen as in-house training for detection, especially “security intrusion detection”, a phrase that can be taken from the computer field and applied to the use of social cognition in representation. Cognition is used to understand the workings of intrusive events or, alternatively, to see how abnormal events or people can modify the course of expected events. This connects cognition interests closely to security interests and to the prediction and explanation of unexpected phenomena or trauma. They make up for the lack of predictability of 9/11 and for the lack of efficiency of the warning signals and security tools put in place by the government at the time, which places the FBI at the centre of most of the series in the corpus. It explains why the investigative agency is always in need of the external psychic detective: germs, genes and corpses are like intruders that need to be kept under control. The operative word is “abnormal” or “unusual” therefore suspect and worthy of investigation.

Cognition is called to the rescue because of its function of surveillance of the environment and problem solving. This is where base-rate fallacy, representativeness heuristic    and confirmation biases come back onto the fore with a more technical reality to them, besides representational: they are also about probability and mutually exclusive outcomes.  Basic frequency assumptions are regularly shown as faulty and the improbable scenario is often the one confirmed. False alarms and red herrings are very numerous until the desired result is attained by inductive methods. This primes the viewers into getting ready for any immediate attacks as all events can become intrusions. The cognitive detection work becomes  a means of knowing by vicariance about the intruders or attackers. As a result, an extended preparation or special talents may enable people “prior” to the attack and not too late…  

III.1 The sources of “smartness” and connections of fantasy to real life

The sources of this “smartness” in connection to detection can be set both in the post 9/11 American context and in the new outcomes of neuro-sciences. By establishing a complex and generative pattern of relations, —presented as mental, psychic and spiritual—, these new series show more profound implications of fantasy in real-life, via representation and the way it constructs beliefs and attitudes. This may be due to the need to mourn the dead, an unfinished job in the sequel of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. These new smart series seem therefore to aim at producing social cohesion rather than denouncing social erosion, by promoting personal self-construction and self-awareness as evinced by the latest cognitive developments as they penetrate the sphere of popular culture.   

They do not always mention 9/11 directly but they work on the issue of terror, inner terrors and outer terrors. They also work on the issue of memory and mourning. Not unlike pre-9/11 sci-fi series, they are critical of the state and distrustful of collective and public action. Chris Carter’s legacy is still there, as the same slogans as the X-Files could almost be applied to these series, with a small change of focus, inwards: “The Truth Is Out There” could become “the Truth is In Here” where “Trust No One” and “I Want to Believe” are still valid.

Fringe is a case in point: the main characters are in charge of investigating a phenomenon called “The Pattern”, with strange events occurring for unknown reasons.    Their detection work reveals a connection to Massive Dynamic, a mega-corporation, a leading global technology company whose enemy is ZFT, a bioterrorist organization that prepares for massive destruction. Both sides fight for a nootropic drug, Cortexiphan, known as a “smart” drug because it can be used to enhance mental performance in healthy individuals. The heroin, Olivia, and a number of other people were treated with it as children. At the end of the first season, Olivia meets with the chairman of Massive Dynamic in a parallel universe where, among other differences, the World Trade Center was not destroyed by the 9/11 attacks…

Heroes deals a lot with memory, terror and intrusion detection. Isaac Mendez can pre-cognitively paint future events, including a nuclear explosion in New York City. Hiro Nakamura is able to teleport himself, to travel in time as well as to freeze time.  In  “Don't Look Back” (season 2, episode 2), Hiro travels into the future of New York City, finds Isaac dead and witnesses the nuclear explosion. In “Five Years Gone” (season 1, episode 20, originally entitled “String theory”— a physics theory that intents to be “the theory of everything” (TOE), a manner of describing the known fundamental forces and interactions of and matter in the universe, no less), Hiro and Ando Masahashi find themselves five years after the destruction of New York. People with super-powered abilities are labelled as terrorists and the evil Sylar is the President. Hiro and Ando eventually return to the present and Hiro finds out that he must kill Sylar if he is to prevent the future he has just experienced from happening.

The finale of Numb3rs wraps up with a revelation that Colby (an FBI agent) was actually a double agent for the Chinese. Charlie is also suspected for having sent information to scientists in Pakistan. His security clearance is revoked, in the finale of season four (“When Worlds Collide”, episode 20) where the story line is about a terrorist cell, with a scheme to blow up some high schools with Russian rockets. One of terrorists was a colleague of his, with whom he co-authored a paper on DNA manipulation which puts the suspicion on him too, all the more so as he sent emails to colleagues of him about his classified research ...in Pakistan. He can’t do any more work with Don and he can’t work on any classified material at his university.  The government drops the charges against him only in the fifth season and he gets his security clearance back, only to fight another FBI Security Officer.

The emergence of security politics then consists in a background of issues related to terrorism, like the spread of mass destruction and environmental risks and catastrophes as well as the more personal risks of treason and espionage, in strong correlation with the capacity to read and decipher the signs of intrusion. The force of attraction of such narratives and situations is based on the composite of ideas and attitudes that it conjures up, as a mix of adaptability to a changing context and of fierce belief in individualism. They convey a two-folded cognitive message: some values are stable like individualism or freedom of expression and belief; some values are unstable like democracy and family.

The inner quest for identity relates to how heroes stand in their relation to their community and their environment, and their understanding and acceptance about genes, and the belief that one can be good or evil.  The taboo about changing or modifying genes is almost broken, as these series hesitate between Darwinian and Manichean views of the world…  How is one to accommodate change? Only by becoming more and more aware of one’s talents, accepting them and putting them at the service of the community (dead and alive).

III.2 The production meta-scheme: fitting into the American Psyche

Such series and their smart story-telling can also be seen as a means to export American social engineering in the global environment, as they reconcile self-interest and open-endedness, morality politics, identity politics and security politics.  This process allows for the export of the American model of cognition (not unrelated to some forms of social Darwinism), as the viewer is caught in the “global fellowship” of the serial experience, as Rosenberg puts it.  The USA remain a force of proposition for universal values by staying at the cutting edge for shaping storytelling and the agenda of values via entertainment.  

This corpus shows how American media continue to extend their influence by smart power. Joseph Nye was one of the first to theorize American “soft power”, but he based his analysis on psychological tenets and sciences in the 1970ies. His idea remains valid but, as he himself anticipated, soft power is adaptive and changing in nature. That is its main force. Nye concludes his book by mentioning “smart” power which he sees as a balanced combination of hard and soft power.  In fact though, smart power is cognitive power, especially visible at work in “smart” series as weapons of soft mass persuasion. American ideas are being propagated via media matrices, using the new insights into the theory of the mind offered by the neuro-sciences.

Smart power does not use cognition and storytelling alone in this achievement. It requires an alliance with political economy tenets, with international public diplomacy and moral philosophy. Smart series require the engagement of others in order to achieve their objectives, without explicit threat, by the simple induction of pervasive terror. Their force of persuasion is participatory in nature, intent on co-opting others rather than coercing them into believing. Recognition that values can be shared, that they correspond to the way our brain works and to our core desires, is key to this new kind of persuasion. Engagement is sought much more than traditional ploys of identification to the hero and projection into a situation, because there is the need to bring the viewers to contribute to the pursuit of these values, their reinforcement, their endorsement or even to resist to them as long as their currency is maintained alive, as long as their themes and values continue shaping the agenda and the conversation. Indirect effects are more important and more long-term than obvious direct effects.   

Hollywood exports not so much symbols as situations and figures, which is subtler because it addresses issues that people have to deal with in their daily felt experiences. Experiencing is key. And experiencing is not entertainment: it is knowledge acquisition by other means (as there is no vacancy of the mind in the protestant worldview). Such series can be seen as a means of social engineering, applying network expertise and cognitive knowledge to social disorders, in the USA and in the global environment (many episodes have the word Destiny in their title, as an allusion to American exceptionalism). They reconcile self-interest and open-ness as inter-related and building each other up. These new series are not about consumption but self-consumption. They are already engaged in knowledge economies, where the brain and its production will be the major source of activity and revenue. In such complex cognitive framing, manipulation of dreams and desires comes in a different packaging, more difficult to deconstruct because more embedded in our cognitive core of desires. In that sense, these series are more conducive to trust and to suspension of disbelief, which is to say to a more and more profound implication of fantasy in real-life, via representation and the way it constructs beliefs and attitudes.

A corpus of script-writers and concept-designers is required for that, to be explored in another research. But considering the exchanges and undercurrents which run between such people as JJ Abrams, Paul Attanasio, or David Shore, it seems that they share a common figure of the audience in their minds and aim at making their messages acceptable to them. They don’t really care what government will prevail and if conservative policies are bad or good. They may criticize bureaucracy but mostly they are fascinated by the narrative possibilities of simulation and security: explorations of possible worlds and lifestyles, explorations of neural mutations and hybrid ways of living, etc. Aliens and terrorists are people one has to learn to negotiate with, and possibly create alliances with.   Politicians are not trusted but scientists can be because they have weaknesses, tragedies, addictions,… Mind control is no longer a communist plot but a real possibility, that individuals can access by themselves so as to be empowered.

These new smart series seem therefore to answer the criticism previously levelled at Millennium series, around the idea that they contributed to social erosion rather than social cohesion. They are not longer simplistic and stereotypical in the production of their messages. They don’t try to flatten the social landscape but on the contrary to complexify it, providing once more what the USA are good at, the re-arrangement of old patterns into new ones. They are not just about cultural transmission but also cultural transmutation, adapted to self-construction as evinced by latest cognitive news about brain development.  The brain is less and less the semiotic darkroom is was supposed to be. The receiver’s frames of reference are indeed varied, but still the amount of variation can be mapped and some of the most extreme behaviours tackled while showing other middle of the road trends.


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All the World's Futures. La 56e Biennale de Venise

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dernière modification
27 février 2017 15h58