Phillip Maciak’s “Avidly Reads Screen Time”: A Symposium
Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak
In honor of his new book, Avidly Reads Screen Time (NYU Press, 2023), we have gathered some of Phil’s regular contributors and interlocutors. Screen Time is the biography of a concept and an oblique memoir to boot; it is a book for “creatures made of screens,” which is to say, for all the writers below, for me, and for you too.
Good Vibes Only,
When our twins were about three months old, they abruptly noticed that the TV was on (screen), that we were always staring at our phones (screen), that our computers were always there (screen), and that our lives were structured and organized by (screens). My wife and I didn’t want them to notice this. Screens had been helping us with the long hours of feeding and soothing and watching and being there, stretches of time that had become incredibly long, in which, as with Maeve (Phil’s oldest daughter) in the back seat of a cross-country trip, it was wonderful to have something to look at, think about, and be absorbed by.
Little babies can be, it’s worth saying, very boring. They are inward creatures: their focus is on eating, digesting, and excreting, though they do it with incredible efficiency and their poop doesn’t even stink. Assisting them in these tasks is important, but dull, because they barely register your existence. And so, you get consumed with their consumption: Are the bottles clean? Is the milk right? How much of it? Are they growing fast enough? You are anxious, and so you pore over screens, and drink deep from the bottomless well of online parenting. So many things to do, so many useful things, and so you get more anxious, and you get thirstier the more you drink. (A good thing about little babies is that when you fed them, you have just solved literally all their problems.)
Then, one day, babies aren’t just stomachs with mouths and diapers anymore. Suddenly, time has wrenched them from their Edenic sloth, and they are looking at the screen in your hand. They are starting to have other problems than “I am hungry/wet/tired.” They are starting to look at what you are looking at. They are starting to look at you, and you realize how silly you look, looking at a screen. As they begin to feel a deep inarticulate yearning in the pit of their souls—some primordial, instinctual drive that passes adult understanding—for Bluey and Ms. Rachel, you learn that they will steal your phone if you turn your back for even a minute (though they luckily don’t know your passcode). You suddenly miss the way they used to be insulated from the medium of the world, the way you didn’t have to hide your phone from them, because they didn’t care that it was there; you may even miss, in a weird way, the way they didn’t used to see you.
When this started happening, I immediately messaged Phil Maciak (screen), a more experienced parent, asking what he thought we should do about the screens. I don’t remember what he said, but it wasn’t a very useful answer to the question. It was probably a joke (Phil tells good jokes). But it wasn’t a useful question. It’s a question whose answer is implied in the asking, in the anxiety that necessitates it, and the sense of a screen as a problem that you, as a parent, have to solve. And, of course, we did what more or less everyone does, which was mostly turn off the screens around the babies, though also not always. Like nearly everyone does, we encouraged them to scorn the blandishments of the sophisticated marvel of electronics—assembled by a globe-spanning supply chain and labor apparatus and then populated by the creative work of thousands of minds working in dreadful complexity—and to instead play with a rattly bee or a fabric cactus, or to listen to a song.
(Children always do what their parents encourage them to do, luckily, and parents always encourage them to do the right thing.)
I’m glad I asked Phil about it, though, because he’s been thinking hard about my question—it really spurred his imagination—and has very helpfully written an entire book just to help me think about how my kids should think about having their time structured and organized by screens, as they inevitably will. I read Avidly Reads Screen Time over a single weekend, while lying on the floor with babies crawling over me; I printed out the entire book and read it on sheets of paper (not screen), because if I read it on my phone or laptop (screen), the babies would get too interested in the screens. I also did this because I wanted to have a picture taken of me (screen) reading the book on printed-out paper (not screen).
Here is the picture my wife took.
This is a pretty silly way to be, but parenthood is pretty silly in general. Babies are going to grow up and want screens, and parents are going to want them to want other things. There are no screens in the books we read to them—books showing an idyllic world filled with animals and friends and idle sociality—precisely because we know, deep down, that the world they’ll live in is more than just saturated by screens: it’s made by them. And this is not a problem to be solved with useful tips you read on the internet or gleaned from a friend. This is the way it is, the joyous melancholy of having kids in a world made by screens.
Screen Time is a book about this televisual unconscious, about parenting, about a world that children will consume long before they know what they’re digesting—that formed us when we were still children—and about trying to understand the selves we only belatedly discover ourselves to have already always been. It’s a very clever book, and also a very simple book. If I felt like trying to remember what I once read Fredric Jameson say about postmodernism (or was it David Harvey?), I might say that it explores the kind of world where all of everything has been compressed into a single point—the thing our screens connect to—and the only limiting factor for our experience of it is (screen) time.
But I’m not in grad school anymore, so I also don’t have to scrabble around trying to remember what it means to call something a televisual unconscious, a term I just made up. Something about Foucault, also, especially the part where being obsessed with proscribing and controlling a thing is a good indication that you’re just obsessed with that thing, and that the people you deny it to will also, as a result, be obsessed with that thing. The word fetish too, and alienation. Maybe Marx? Those kinds of guys.
Phil has certainly read guys like that, and he could have written a book that would say a lot of the same things that his book says—about historicizing the present, about what media is, about our society of privatized spectacle—in conversation with those kinds of guys, where “theory” is the name for the kind of arms-length at which you hold the world at bay. You can read his book and feel the kind of NYU Press book that that would have been: a book where you’d read it, and know what it said, and then after reading it, you’d understand. You’d have eaten up the words in it, and digested them, and neatly and efficiently converted them into knowledge. You’d be a theorist, and your poop would smell really nice.
Instead, he wrote a book about family and about Mad Men, two things for which understanding is precisely not the point. He wrote a book about the moment when you realize your kids can see you, and have their own thoughts about you, thoughts you’ll never quite understand, but which you still work to embrace. He wrote about the screens that make us, that populate our world, and about how we use them not to hold the world at bay but to bring it closer. The best thing for kids to do with screens is to watch them with you at their side; the best way to watch Mad Men is to do it with friends.
I haven’t neatly and efficiently converted Phil’s book into knowledge; I read it with babies crawling over me, always distracted, while thinking about what I might DM Phil, as I do most days, about my big Mad Men rewatch, a rewatch I started because I was going to read Phil’s book, because the thing that makes watching Mad Men fun is chatting about what a young hottie Vincent Kartheiser was in season one, why everyone hates Harry, and whether Matt Weiner understands his own show (he doesn’t). It’s a show, as Phil told me, about how self-knowledge is impossible. But, as his book helped me think about, is self-knowledge really what we’re after here? Is that what (or whom) we’re looking for, when we look into our screens?
As I type this, I am watching the twins in their cribs, on a baby monitor (screen). I am watching Nicanor thrashing around and sitting up and making a “babababa” sound. And now, and I swear this is exactly what is happening to me right now, I am watching him try to get his hands on the monitor camera that is watching him; I am watching him stare into the eyes of the screen and try to make sense of it, as he goes “babababa.” It is so fucking cool.
Later, I’ll be thinking about the image Phil opens his book with, from the Mad Men episode “Waterloo.” But right now, I’m thinking something other than what I usually think, at the crack of dawn, when Nicanor starts to wake up; I’m thinking something other than I wish he would go back to sleep. Babies don’t go to sleep. Babies wake up and look at screens. Babies grow up, look at you, and see you.
I also think to myself, I should DM Phil this video, and say “screentime.” So I do.
We are the TV.
With its opening lines, Avidly Reads Screen Time ushers us into a “we.” Like a screen, “we” is a relation. We find ourselves on one side of it because the “we” also marks a threshold, and the thing about screens—televisions, apps, clips, maps, ARs, VRs—is that they depend on our perception, on our participation. And just as screen time frames the personal and cultural history of Screen Time, “we” frames our perception of this book. Because screen time is individualized, but also collective.
In its barest form, a screen is an object, a material thing displaying or blocking or filtering. It exerts a pressure on the world. A screen frames and can frame a frame, reframe, or call attention to its frames. As Phil identifies, the history of screen time is the history of our awareness of screens and of screens’ self-awareness. Screen time is a concept, a history, a kind of time, an organization, constraint, or management of time. It is a medium for guilt and shame. It is a morphology of uses and feelings and ways of seeing that cannot be simply parsed.
Among other things, Screen Time is about frames and framing. The first chapter frames the concept of screen time through its cultural history. The second chapter is about how the mutation of television (and receptions to television) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries framed the concept. The third, fourth, and fifth chapters are about how screen times (the concept, the practice, the feeling) frame what we might call real life (or everything that is not screen time). In “We Are Not Alone (good vibes),” screen times frame moments of real connectivity, interpersonal relationships, and proliferating screens, turn “attention itself into a creative act.” In “We Are Not Alone (bad vibes),” anxiety manifests screen time and screens conduct nervous energy into habitual circuits of anxiety.
“Space Junk” amplifies screen time into its most harrowing and optimistic tenors. In it, Phil narrates a moment with his family en route to an off-the-grid vacation, when screen anxiety becomes almost debilitating. Not just everything that could go wrong, but also the thought of losing the loops of access and connectivity that screens always promise. His family makes it to their cabin. They look up and see millions of stars and celestial clouds. When they return to the grid, Phil and his daughter look for stars through an app that maps the cosmos from any place on earth. But the proposed climactic reveal of this story, the first images taken by the James Webb telescope, is anticlimactic. Though never-before-seen views of space promise a kind of exceptional screen image, they are underwhelming to Phil’s daughter, who much prefers a star app that is responsive to movement and seems to grant her a perspective in the universe.
This letdown is fitting because Screen Time is about complicated feelings and feelings that complicate. Screens mobilize our yearnings for connection and awe, yearnings worth fostering, just as they divert us and frustrate us and hitch us into loops. “To lend a name to something,” Phil writes, “is to lend it a coherence it may have lacked before.” The book is about all the things that adhere to the concept of screen time, but it is also about how that stickiness gets stubborn and messy. Because of when it appears, what it names, and the proliferation of its moralizing target, screen time appears deeply imbricated to how we experience a world reorganized through screens and flows of information.
The thing is, we can’t think about screens without thinking about screen time, a concept with a history, a way of organizing time, a cluster of good and bad feelings. Ambivalence is integral to this experience. A kind of unresolvable flow of guilt, knowledge, gratification, bad habits, and play. This book is about all of that, and it is framed by what it does to Phil, what it does to me, and, maybe, what it does to you too.
It is the middle of the afternoon in early spring, and I have abandoned my desk to see a friend who is a first-year resident with an unexpected day off. We are walking through a neighborhood garden and staring up at a statuesque tree. For a moment, we are still. One of my closest friends lives 800 miles away. She tells me that someone she cares about is in the hospital. As I type out a reply, the keyboard on my screen feels more mechanical than ever. I am with two people at once. I am two people at once. I am thinking about Screen Time and the banal surrealism of a kind of life lived through screens. This is what it’s like. This is how it feels.
The immediacy of address strikes me: What is this “this”? A demonstrative pronoun, a link tethering us back to an earlier thing, or setting up a thing to come. Unlike “that,” there’s a possessiveness to “this.” It is, in some way, personal. This coalesces everything in the book and all that is irresolvable about its terms. Screen Time is about intimacies that are made possible, warped, or even spoiled by alienating media. Phil’s voice keeps intimacy in the room while traversing topics that could otherwise be weighed down by the slow pound of sociology. His arguments flit effortlessly between playfulness and searing sincerity, and he is always somehow writing directly to you.
Screen times are about self-awareness and ambivalences around that awareness. At least twice the book turns to moments in which the spectator becomes the screen—Peggy and Don watching the moon landing in Mad Men, malevolent Bob creeping up on Maddy in Twin Peaks—it’s not that the fourth wall is broken, but that it is revealed to not have been a wall at all; it was always a screen. Screen Time looks at us too, speaks to us, reveals a book to be a sort of interface as well. For a moment, we hold on to all of this.
I read all of Avidly Reads Screen Time on my iPhone screen—which feels appropriate, given that I first came to know its author over my computer screen, discussing the merits of various shows consumed through our respective television screens. Phil even describes the origin story of what would become our television recap blog, Dear Television, in his third chapter, appropriately titled “We Are Not Alone (good vibes)”:
When we first started, in 2012, we wrote as if we were correspondents in an epistolary novel. No recap was ever done alone. In those early days, we’d each contribute to a rotating chain letter about every episode of whatever we were watching. […]
The four of us were purely internet friends, at the time. […] Our relationship was born and grew up in email, text, Twitter DMs, fathomless scrolls of GChat (RIP), and, of course, on the blog.
It’s a banal fact of my life that I’ve met some of my closest friends on blogs. Less frequently, I’m reminded that blogs are also where I’ve encountered close reading at its best. Phil is an exemplary close friend and reader—two qualities that have always been entwined for me. As our relationship deepened over the years of writing Dear Television, so too did our analyses of popular screen cultures; taking each other seriously was a mode of taking television seriously.
But if my relationship to Screen Time is necessarily a personal one, so too, in a way, is yours. As Maciak argues in his book, “Screen time is collective, and it is also hyper-individualized,” and as a result, one’s relationship to their screen time is always routed through the self. Some of the book traces broader historical flashpoints: the moral panic around Kids Watching Too Much Television in the early 1990s; the rise of HBO and what Jason Mittell terms “complex TV”; the emergence of streaming services; the uncanny intimacies of FaceTime. But almost all of it gets filtered through Maciak’s individual encounters, anecdotes, and, most preciously, his readings of these cultural events.
The history of “screen time,” which Maciak dates from the 1990s to our present, is also, in this case, ultimately Maciak’s personal one. As he unfolds the various stages of screen time’s upbringing, so too does he simultaneously draw out his own—from watching DuckTales on an RCA Colortrak TV set to handing his daughter an iPad for the first time—as well as those of his children, who have been born into a very different (if not unrelated) screen ecology.
Screen Time is a ranging and searching book, but its central thesis might be this: the story of screen time is a story about growing up. It’s a story, moreover, not just about how growing up happens, for most of us, over and through screens, but also a story about the very Bildung of screens themselves. After all, much of the mythologies about screen time’s own genealogy has been told to us through, well, screens. Across five lively chapters, Maciak trains his eye on shows that, like his own book, take screen time as not only their object but also their subject. There are the many evocations of the television screens in Mad Men, which Maciak reads as an extended metaphor for what it means to write for, well, television. Not to mention readings of The Wire (“about a group of people who don’t have cable in their basement apartment, but, when they finally get it, they all become obsessed with watching whatever’s on”), Homeland (“about a woman who gets so invested binge-watching her favorite antihero series that she starts to sympathize and identify with its bad guy protagonist”), The Leftovers (“a golden age television show that Damon Lindelof made about the very complicated feelings Damon Lindelof has about the public backlash to the final episode of his previous golden age television show, Lost”), and many more that I won’t spoil here.
Like Raymond Williams before him, Maciak is constantly attuned to how screen time makes us feel—and indeed how screen time itself is a kind of feeling. Reading Screen Time itself, however, is a vibe too, as the kids like to say. Its prose often reads like that of a friend’s (even if not your personal friend), insofar as the ending of one chapter made me cry (you’ll have to guess which). The book is also really funny, especially if you enjoy jokes that specifically target Canadian customs, like the one about Bob from Twin Peaks as a “denim-on-denim demon” who is a total “manifestation of evil—hence the abomination of his Canadian tuxedo.” Did Maciak write that joke specifically for me? Did he for you?
Somewhere, across all those screens—and screens within screens—I realized that I had made a close friend. Though, as this friend also wisely points out in his latest book, maybe the real treasure was the screens we met along the way.
I’m watching the last season of Barry and have found myself pointing eagerly—because Phil’s Screen Time has colonized my brain—at several scenes tailor-made to prove him right. Phil writes of “prestige” shows that they “aren’t just good prompts for TV criticism; they are TV criticism.” This sentence practically lit up in lights over my screen as I watched a couple in Barry—a TV show about a hitman and Hollywood—sit in a living room organized (like that shot in Twin Peaks Phil draws our attention to) around the idea of a television. Here, too, there isn’t one. Instead, each person sits in their own chair, with screens of their own, watching something that fills a psychic need or deepens a psychic wound. The loneliness of it is extraordinary. The missing TV set feels like a metaphor for the togetherness they’ll never find.
A subsequent scene features the same couple watching a laptop in that same room. A child is present now, so they’ve all gathered round this tiny screen as if it were a television. (Again, the space is designed for one.) This vision of the family is in obvious dialogue with all those 1960s ads of parents and children gathered cozily around the tube that sent poor Tom Engelhardt into such a tizzy. But if that version inspired a moral panic over the zombification of the nuclear family, this one is even worse. A laptop can never be mistaken for furniture like a TV set can, and its inadequacy and transience become part of the story the scene is telling. As a cinematic object, it lacks stage presence. Bill Hader makes its inability to anchor a scene explicit with a shot that amounts to an experiment in how certain kinds of screens can trivialize their subjects. The scene begins zoomed in on what they’re watching—a televangelist. He fills our screens at first, but as the camera zooms out, slowly and smoothly, to reveal that he’s on a tiny laptop, his importance—and centrality—drains out.
That’s because the point of the scene isn’t the televangelist’s middling sermon; it’s the anti-epiphanic misery of the family watching him. One person is into the message, one is not, but it’s clear that this is as close as they get to quality time. It is their version of going to church. It is futile. And it is—of course—an attempt at the kind of “good” screen time Phil describes parents groping toward, in a wan but never-ending effort to contend with the guilt and shame and beauty and connection we find in our relationships to screens.
It’s fascinating to me that on television, the convention that has emerged for how to communicate marital blight—or familial disconnection—is to show people who should clearly be watching TV together (at what Cecelia Tichi calls the “electronic hearth”) failing to do so meaningfully. To evoke emotional distance, we no longer show Betty Draper telling the kids to go watch TV. Instead, we show people reacting differently to what’s on the screen—or worse, refusing to share their screen time, effectively sacrificing the communal pleasures of joint attention by swapping one screen for two.
This happens in the pilot of Ozark as well: the TV is on after dinner, but neither Laura Linney nor Jason Bateman even glance at Anderson Cooper. He drones on in the background to fill the dead air while a man and woman stare at screens of their own. It seems that the spectacle of a family in thrall to the tube—that sometime locus of anxiety—has come to suggest the opposite of what it once did. Screen time is so central to our experience now that our screens express familial harmony by showing us pictures of everyone looking at the same one.
What would Engelhardt have said about all this, I wonder.
And what do we, the embattled parents trying to keep screens from our kids—we hypocrites, the screen-time sinners binging on Moose YouTube all alone and late into the night—make of this diminished but potent fantasy of the happy family as one where everyone wants to watch the same show at the same time?
I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. I mean, look: I know I’m not denying my 10-month-old twins access to an important kind of familial bonding by keeping them from my phone (which they want more than life itself). I know that. But as I watch them get bored with a wooden toy, with each other, and with me, I remind myself of the salutary effects of boredom while wondering, heretically, what they might make of this Ms. Rachel, whose YouTube channel I hear so much about. (And yet, even as I write this, it occurs to me that my thought experiment falls far short of the TV-watching model above. What I find myself looking forward to is not watching TV with them, but watching them watch it. Are my children screens too?)
This is the kind of stuff you end up thinking about if you spiral down deep into Phil’s capacious and brilliant recuperation of a phrase whose main by-product has until now been mild guilt. In Phil’s hands, screen time multiplies. If it started out as a measure of the minutes an actor spent on-screen, it ends up as an elastic term—a pun, even—that, at least in theory, captures all the ways screens structure our temporality. Phil writes about a childhood understanding of time measured out in episodes of DuckTales. My experience was different—for me, screens produce time blindness. But this isn’t a disagreement. As Phil himself writes, “Television dilates the space given to it; it makes time malleable. Its time frames speed us up and slow us down, expand our time or help us lose it.”
Time has changed for me now. The twins’ nap should be one and a half dramas or three comedies. When they go to sleep, my partner and I sit down on the couch, exhausted, to watch something—anything—together. We want, more than anything, to share some screen time. How much we get varies. Sometimes you get one more comedy before the babies wake up, and that feels like a massive win. And sometimes you lose half a drama, pulled back (by a monitor showing you one weeping baby, or two) to your real life.
At least we’re watching the same thing.
Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland.
Jorge Cotte is a writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Complex, and Remezcla. When not writing, he is cooking, binging, and tweeting.
Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.
Lili Loofbourow is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley working on Milton and 17th-century theories of eating and reading. She tweets at @millicentsomer, blogs at Excremental Virtue, writes TV criticism over at Dear Television along with Jane Hu, Phillip Maciak and Evan Kindley, and can sometimes be found at The Awl, The Hairpin, and The New Inquiry.
Lili Loofbourow is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley working on Milton and 17th-century theories of eating and reading. She tweets at @millicentsomer, blogs at Excremental Virtue, and writes TV criticism over at Dear Television along with Jane Hu, Phillip Maciak, and Evan Kindley. You can sometimes find her at The Awl, The Hairpin, and The New Inquiry.
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