Peter Stromberg on Entertainment

Peter Stromberg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, studies the aspects of Western culture that, though they seem familiar, are “just as exotic and curious as the activities that other anthropologists have described in far-off lands,” he writes on his website. Below, Stromberg, author of Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You, discusses with Zócalo what entertainment has in common with religion and why it so consumes us.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

A. I’ve always studied contemporary American and European societies, and I’ve always felt that entertainment is an extraordinarily important part of how our societies work. I began as a student of religion, so I was interested in the psychological aspects of participation in religion. I wrote a book on evangelical Christian conversion. I felt that in some ways, in our society, entertainment serves some of the same purposes that religion did in maybe pre-modern societies, or does in other societies around the globe. By that I mean in our society, entertainment – like religion in other societies – kind of supports our basic view of the world and the things that we regard as most true.

Just to take an example of that, so you’ll know what I’m talking about – I think it’s hard for us to get around the concept that ultimately the very meaning of our lives has something to do with fame or celebrity. You can see that in the kinds of advice we give our kids – we tell them to strive. Sometimes it’s just “Do your best,” which is fine, but often it seems that people aren’t regarded as fully significant unless they’ve achieved some degree of fame. It’s a very basic kind of idea we have about what our lives are all about. I think it’s strongly reinforced through our participation in entertainment. Essentially if you’re not to some extent in entertainment, if you’re not getting a lot of attention, because your work in whatever field isn’t garnering attention, it seems like maybe you haven’t really fulfilled your potential.

I really felt like entertainment as a whole needs to be looked at, and social scientists haven’t really done a very good job of looking at entertainment at that level.

Peter StrombergQ. When you say that entertainment has taken a role like religion once had, and that we’re so interested in fame that we tell our kids to go after it, entertainment seems like a bad thing. Is it bad? Should we feel bad about participating in it?

A. That’s a great question. I don’t know, and I don’t want to claim that I know. I see my job as a social scientist as raising certain important issues and trying to start a conversation about entertainment. I find that we’re oddly unable to talk about entertainment, even though there are things about entertainment that are really weird. I was on the MSN homepage yesterday and I saw a banner come across the screen, and I’ve never seen a banner like this before. It was magenta or some other attention-grabbing color, and I thought maybe it was announcing, I don’t know, an alien invasion of Earth. But it was about the Michael Jackson investigation. Why is it that there was this pop singer in the ’80s, and earlier he had been a child star, and no offense but it’s hard to see why he is regarded as so significant. Why the level of fascination with Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson’s death? It’s strange. If a Martian were to land on Earth, he would point to this and say, “What is up with these people?”

I just want to call attention to some things and to get people thinking about entertainment. I’ve said in the past I feel like a salmon trying to talk to other salmon about water. I say “there’s this stuff called entertainment”, and people, say, “What stuff?” It’s such an important part of our cultural environment, and we don’t even see it. It’s hidden in plain sight.

Ultimately, I don’t want to be another academic who stands around and wags his finger and says, “Oh, we shouldn’t watch as much TV.” I don’t really know.  But I do feel like we need a much more effective way of talking about and thinking about the kind of influence that entertainment has on us.

Q. It sounds like you define entertainment pretty broadly. What does it include?

A. By entertainment I mean the whole gambit, the whole spectrum of resources that are available for our stimulation, that work by provoking emotional excitement. I consider entertainment to be pretty much a phenomenon of contemporary society. Certainly, you could say when someone went to a festival in medieval Europe that was a form of entertainment, sure, but on the other hand, the festival wasn’t for sale. They weren’t buying the festival. When amusement enters the marketplace, which happens in our society in the late 18th century, then I think you start to get this phenomenon called entertainment. I include books, I include theme parks, I include a lot of what people do in leisure time – vacations for example. I include in entertainment much of advertising. Some advertising is informational, not all of it is entertainment, but a lot of it is intended to be entertaining.

Q. Why is consumption essential to your concept of entertainment?

A. Let’s start with a truism. Consumption is necessary to our way of life. Our economy is predicated on high consumption, and with the recent economic crisis we’ve run into a bit of a problem that has to do with a drop-off in consumption. Continuously expanding levels of consumption are absolutely vital to our economy and keeping people happy. If you get contraction, people get very unhappy. Now some people will say that wanting to have lots of stuff is just an inherent part of human character. If you go back again to, say, a European peasant of the 15th century or something, some people assert if they had had the opportunity to get an iPod, they would’ve wanted one too. That’s not necessarily what you find. Sometimes you get attitudes like, “I have a good pair of shoes, why do I need another?”

So, consumption has to be stimulated in various kinds of ways. That’s particularly true in light of the fact that we have this odd little paradox in our society. We all have to work very hard, we need to continually increase production, and we have to really be pushed to work longer hours. We need to develop values related to work – industriousness, diligence – and we have to get great educations. Not every one of us, but most people are expected to work very hard, no matter what it is that we do. Our economy depends on those values of work. The values of consumption are quite different. They’re more like, “Hey, enjoy yourself, take a break.” They place value on pleasurable feelings. So we’re in this wacky position as a society of having to push two different sets of values on people, values that are at times in conflict, and I think entertainment is an extraordinarily effective system for promoting the values of consumption. It’s interesting that these values of consumption that we have – I call them shadow values – we don’t often really articulate them. We don’t even fully acknowledge that we have them. We really want a lot of stuff, but we don’t really say, “I want a lot of stuff,” We are more likely to explicitly claim the the values of work such as diligence or integrity. In a lot of ways we hold the values of consumption on a different level. We’re emotionally committed to them, but we’re not quite sure we’re committed to them cognitively or mentally.

Q. I know earlier you didn’t want to say whether entertainment itself – as a value-giving thing – is bad or good, but it sounds like you’re saying we do at least think it’s bad. Why is that?

A. Certainly, people are standing around and saying kids need to watch less TV, so there is a discourse of entertainment is bad. My own view is different.  Let’s pursue a kind of weird analogy:  Entertainment is like the weather. Sometimes there’s good weather and sometimes there’s bad weather. It can be a nice afternoon or there can be a tornado warning – at least here in Oklahoma – but you don’t make global judgments on the weather. We never ask, is weather good or bad? Maybe we ought to have that kind of an attitude toward entertainment. It’s not a question of whether entertainment as a whole is good or bad. We need to look at the different kinds of entertainment, what they do, why they’re there, and we can have a more productive discussion about the effects of entertainment. To return to your original question about why we might suspect that entertainment is bad, it goes back to shadow values, values we are reluctant to acknowledge. If I sit around and watch two hours of NCIS or something and watch bodies being taken apart in autopsies, probably, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking this isn’t the healthiest thing for me to be doing even though it is really fun. People recognize that what’s happening in entertainment isn’t really all that lofty. I think really what entertainment is about is creating high levels of emotional arousal, and that’s not always something we are willing to admit that we admire.

Caught in Play by Peter StrombergQ. Is that what you mean by “caught up”?

A. Yes it is. There are a couple of chapters in the middle of the book where I talk about contemporary neuroscience research, which has given us a much better understanding of how people process narratives, and how they process visual imagery. At the most basic level, the experience of being caught up refers to something you’ve experienced, I’m sure, that sense that you can’t put down a book, or you’re watching a movie and two hours pass and you’re not aware that any time has passed at all because you’ve been so absorbed in the act of watching this movie. Those are extreme versions of things that happen a lot more frequently. We get engaged in entertainment. We almost enter into it, in a way.

One thing that is really important in this context is that neuroscientists have learned more and more about our imitative ability. We tend to imitate people around us without any awareness that we are doing so. It’s based in our evolution as social beings. If you’re talking to somebody in a conversation, you will imitate them and they will imitate you, particularly if you’re having an interesting conversation. There will be an extraordinary amount of imitation going on. Lo and behold, if you’re watching close-ups of actors on a movie screen, you’re going to be imitating their facial expressions and so on. There is a lot of work that now shows that emotions follow facial expressions. If you smile, you will be happy, rather than the other way around. The technologies of entertainment that we have developed turn out to be extraordinarily effective ways of getting people not only to have certain kinds of emotional reactions to things but to lead them along in their emotional reactions. That’s why you get this feeling of being “caught up” in this situation. Millions of years of evolution have conditioned your mind to work in that way. The upshot is I think we often underestimate the sheer emotional potency of entertainment activities. They’re really really fun, and that’s why people seek them out. They take us on a roller coaster emotional ride. Why else would people want to go see horror movies? I’ve had the experience of being really scared and there’s nothing really fun about it whatsoever. If you can do it in a safe context, and keep it under control, it’s extremely stimulating. What I want to call attention to is how those emotional experiences have profound and lasting effects on us.

Q. Can you elaborate on that? What are the longer-term effects? And what happens when we lack these experiences – when we’re bored, something you discuss in the book?

A. It’s those experiences that create the shadow values I was talking about earlier, the values of consumption. You could take an advertisement as an example. You’re watching an ad for a soft drink, and you see a group of extraordinarily attractive people, who are maybe playing volleyball on the beach or something, and they’re not only attractive, they’re having more fun than you have in two months. They’re bouncing off the walls with the fun they’re having. You’re getting caught up in this to some extent, you’re getting some of those feelings and so on. Without it coming to awareness, you’re thinking, what is it that is causing all this fun? I could get behind being with all those spectacular looking people having all that fun. What is it? Well, look how much they are relishing that soft drink!. You don’t go out and buy the Pepsi necessarily, but an association has been created here.

But it’s far more than just specific products in advertising. More broadly, when you see a lot of entertainment, another value that gets created is arousal itself. Other parts of life don’t seem as stimulating by comparison. As a result, you want other things you do to be more stimulating. A sort of logic of entertainment emerges, whereby if something isn’t particularly stimulating, maybe it could be valuable for other reasons, but it doesn’t really grab you. You think it’s boring. I’m a classroom teacher, I’m a lecturer, and what I’ve learned over the years is that, perhaps increasingly so, I need to be an entertainer. There are a few students who would like to learn about the principles of anthropology, but for the most part, what my students are looking for is stimulating stories and jokes and you throw in a little sex if you can.

This logic of entertainment influences many parts of our way of life, you can look for example at the way our political discourse is structured. Everything has to be a zippy sound bite. As people have these experiences of arousal they come to value them. If they aren’t getting it, they start to feel bored and they look around for what they can do to get some more arousal. If something isn’t arousing, if something isn’t stimulating, then it’s boring and people lose attention in it. So over time, the reason there has been such extraordinary emphasis on, say, Michael Jackson’s death or celebrities and entertainment in general is that it’s very stimulating. If you want to look at how the logic of entertainment has changed things, look at the news. What is the news about? A lot of it is about celebrity, a lot of it is about entertainment. Even the political issues are presented as such, the appearance and personality of politicians. I’m not being original here, a lot of people have made these points about the news. It is always slanted toward, say, violence and the kinds of things people will find arousing.

Q. People often say entertainment has become, and has to become, ever more stimulating. How has this changed how we experience it and what it does for us?

A. It’s a good question. I think there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s a natural selection or evolutionary pressure over time to present more and more stimulating things. If you look at the standards of acceptability in entertainment now and compare to a few decades ago, it’s obvious there is enormously more stimulating content. There’s much more sex, much more explicit violence. I don’t go to movies often – if you go only once a year, you know that the sound level will be higher every time you go in. The effect of this competition to create higher arousal is that there’s this continual pressure on social standards to be accommodating to more and more arousal, to provide more and more entertainment. There’s a continual pressure on things that aren’t entertainment to become entertaining in order to compete. It’s a question of, can you make your car entertaining?, and so on.

Q. What sort of entertainment have you gotten caught up in?

A. I’ve always loved sports. That’s not to say that I’m good at them but I love them. All the time I was growing up I played lots of different sports, and anyone who has done that has the experience of being caught up in that kind of game. I don’t watch a lot of sports now just because I’m busy, but if I could I would. I love many different kinds of music – I listen to it loud. I watch Westerns and crime dramas.  I’m no entertainment ascetic. I don’t think the answer is we need to make entertainment go away or we need some sort of government control of entertainment. I think we need a more robust counter-discussion so people can be more aware of the effects of entertainment and think more carefully about what entertainment does.

Let me give you another example of the effects of entertainment. I’ve said entertainment is an extraordinary system for promoting the values of consumption. Well, what do you know, we have huge social problems in this country with people who can’t control their consumption, in terms of people who become addicted to drugs or people who can’t control their weight, their eating, their spending, which is one of the reasons for the recent financial crisis. We need to be able to look at these problems of consumption in a social context that acknowledges that, in fact, our way of life is promoting this. Obviously, addiction is an extraordinarily complicated biological issue, but it’s not as straightforwardly biological as people think. It is influenced by cultural and historical factors. People in colonial times in America drank more alcohol per capita than we do today, but they didn’t talk about addiction. My point is just that our promotion of consumption through entertainment is connected to some of our most intractable social problems such as addiction and obesity, and we would be better off if we brought this connection into public discourse.

*Photo of Peter Stromberg courtesy Stanford University press. Photo of the “That’s Entertainment” sign courtesy Ian Muttoo.


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