Amusing Ourselves

Some time ago I was on a camping trip with a bunch of kids and we were stargazing. My nine year old friend was sitting next to me as I pointed to Cygnus and remarked, "That constellation is called the Northern Cross."

She replied, "What's a constellation?"

I explained the idea to her and told her that, for most of human history, there were no televisions and people sat around the fire making up stories about their gods and heroes, whom they pictured in the stars.

I don't know what she got out of that, but it got me thinking. It's amazing to realize that the closeness, warmth and happiness of a campfire and a starry night which, for us, is a fugitive event reserved only for the occasional campout was, for our ancestors, a more or less daily occurrence. Yes, I realize that little problems like rain, freezing to death, and attack by wild bears are also no longer part of the picture for us, but I still think we've lost a great deal of something that we needn't have lost: the capacity to amuse ourselves.

Culture used to be an expression of cult. That is, a people's deepest beliefs about The Way Things Are would inevitably be expressed in the stories they told themselves, the art they made to look at, the drama they created, the music they sang. A great deal of that art, literature, and music was created "anonymously" or even as a sort of common communal act. Nobody "wrote" "Yankee Doodle" or "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", just as nobody "wrote" "Jack the Giant-Killer" or the Hail Mary. They emerged out of a mysterious process by which the heart of a whole people spoke its deepest thoughts. In the same way, the great myths of the pagan world were not "published" by anybody and made available for sale at the Athenian Barnes and Noble. They emerged out of a sort of great stew of human creativity.

This is not to say that individual geniuses don't shine throughout history. But it is to say that there has been a relatively rapid shift in the past hundred years or so in which the arts have become "products" which are manufactured by gigantic corporations and sold for a passive audience who neither ask for nor desire a great deal of what is forced upon them. To prove it all you have to do is turn on your TV or go to the nearest Giganto Cinemaplex and see how much of it you don't want to watch. A colossal amount of our cultural output is no longer a product of culture but of a sort of manufacturing process in which a roomful of suits sits down and fashions, not a story or song, but a sort of marketing tool by which various niche groups are fed pre-fabricated images and acoustical stimuli and told they are "hot".

The niche groups, not owning the means to produce their own films and music, then purchase this manufactured product because what else is there? The key here is quantity more than quality. Various marketing strategies are attempted and the successful ones stick (in the best capitalist fashion). And because enormously powerful corporations are typically the engine driving the process, stupendous works of junk like Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty" or the bad-for-so-many-reasons How the GrinchTM Stole Christmas actually make it all the way through from initial concept to their premiere without anybody every stopping to say, "Wait! These are horrible, corrupt, demeaning assaults on the heart of childhood and human intelligence!" Instead, they are marketed, like everything else, to a public whose only remaining power is the ability to say, "I don't want that piece of garbage." And that power is studiously subverted at every turn by commercials which threaten, "Kids! If your Mom and Dad don't take you to see this hollow disco ball of a movie or buy you this empty candy wrapper of a CD they probably don't love you!" And so, the landscape is filled with the mysterious phenomenon of "hit" films and music that nobody feels comfortable admitting they saw or bought. It's just that "There was nothing else playing" and time had to be filled up somehow.

My point is this: until quite recently in human history, ordinary people amused themselves for the most part. They did not require a TV, video game or stereo to provide amusement for them. Evenings were spent telling stories, singing songs, playing the piano in the parlor, or playing games. That faculty has not, of course, been eradicated in the human soul. But it has been greatly stifled, to our great impoverishment.

I don't hold myself up as some paragon in all this. I'm not. I'm a culture consumer like you are. But it occurs to me that perhaps a conversation about to subverting the dominant paradigm might be long overdue. What do you think?

Copyright 2005 - Mark P. Shea