One of my favorite half-hour cable shows is House Hunters. (Actually, I prefer House Hunters International, part of the HH franchise that now includes a vacation home show.) In the show, we meet a couple who describe their needs and desires for a home. They then visit three houses (or condos or flats) to purchase. As the couple walks through the homes, they point out features that they like or don’t like. A realtor describes the area and the amenities. At the end, the couple sits down over coffee or walk down a sidewalk to discuss the three homes. Throughout the show, a host narrates by discussing the salient features of each house. A graphic on the screen declares “House #1/2/3″ and a brief description like “Downtown Location” or “Extra Bedroom.”
The joy of watching the show is, at least for me, something akin to watching a game show. The contestants are making a large-money decision, and we viewers at home guess at not only what would be the best decision for the couple but also what the couple will actually choose.
News broke a while back that the couple often wasn’t choosing between three options but had already made their decision (for production purposes, it’s easier if the house is already on deposit or purchased) or the other two options were never really options (they might have been staged friends’ homes, for instance). This fakery didn’t bother me as much as if some other reality-suggesting show turned out to be faked, because the peculiar pleasures of House Hunters have so much to do with its bizarrely reductive attempts to reconstruct reasoning processes.
The couples on the show are notorious (at least within my household) for the bizarre reasons they choose a house. “I like the paint color.” “This one has a larger master bathroom.” The forced conceit of having a television crew follow you around as you try to come up with things to say about each room is a delightful insight into what people think they should know or care about a house. Note: it’s not that we are getting insight into how people think about houses; we are getting insight into how people think that they should think about houses. It’s as if at each moment of the show, the couple is saying, “This sounds like the sort of reason we might choose one place over another that doesn’t sound like I’m just saying ‘I like it’ over and over.” Add in the acrinomy caused by couples negotiating their first time on television while they try to figure out how to give justifying reasons for their decisions, and the show is a delightful entrance into artificially constructed reasoning.
I was reminded of my interest in House Hunters week by the release of Sight & Sound Magazine’s list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time, according to invited critics, academics, and programmers. Like House Hunters, the Sight & Sound list invites participants and viewers to engage in reconstructed reasoning. A few months ago, critics needed to decide which films they consider the 10 greatest of all time and why. Based on the accounts I have read, few were satisfied with “I like it,” so elaborate reasoning processes were established and obscure rules are employed. It seems that no two critics adopted the same decision procedure for why each had the list he or she did. With introspection failing, all that’s left is an artificial attempt at reasoning where reasoning can at best fall short. (Part of why the Vishnevestsky method was so delightful is how it called our attention to this artifice.)
A second stage of reconstructed reasoning is taking place now that the list has been revealed, and we are left wondering if there is a reason why Vertigo surpassed Citizen Kane at the No. 1 position, or why certain directors have fallen out of favor. These attempts to draw out some reasoning process that would have led to this decision is as potentially fun and as likely unhelpful as guessing which home will be chosen on House Hunters. When the rules for deciding are made up as one goes along, we are left asking what sorts of publicly available reasons could explain miniscule shifts in voting preferences over the ten years since the last poll. Our reasoning fails us now, just as it was of limited use to those voting in the poll.
Now, please don’t conclude from this that there is no such thing as a better or worse reason for voting something one of the ten greatest films of all time, or that all reasoning is just an expression of taste, or any other foolishly general conclusion. We reason. Sometimes we reason well. Sometimes we reason where reason is of limited use, but this is not to say it is of no use. In some cases “larger master bathroom” is reason enough to make a decision, and in some cases “exemplary expression of a personal vision” is reason enough as well.